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Penn has so many players, there are games you never see

Penn heads to the NCAA tournament with the most game-experienced group of guards in college hoops. Some of that experience is in its pickup games.

Penn players celebrating a point from the bench during their Ivy League tournament semifinal game against Yale at the Palestra on Saturday.
Penn players celebrating a point from the bench during their Ivy League tournament semifinal game against Yale at the Palestra on Saturday.Read moreTim Tai / Staff Photographer

As Penn's basketball season wore on and roles got solidified, this group got together a couple of days a week, usually before the Quakers practiced, sometimes after — at the Palestra or in the practice facility next door.

No coaches calling out instructions, definitely no refs blowing any whistles.

"The objective really is to not call any fouls,'' said Penn junior guard Jackson Donahue (no relation to coach Steve Donahue).

A pickup game, typically three-on-three, assuming six guys could make it. Play it the way the Penn Quakers play basketball. No plays, but use what they do on Friday and Saturday nights. About the only rule: If you started for the Quakers, you weren't in this game. You didn't need the run.

The most special aspect of these 2017-18 Quakers might be how many there are — a varsity roster of 21, although not all healthy — and also, how many of those 21 have had starting roles, past or present. A dozen Quakers have gotten a start sometime during their careers; 11 have gotten at least three starts. Ten Quakers have started a majority of Penn's games in either this season or some past season.

If you picked NCAA teams based on the number of capable guards the team had, pencil Penn into the Final Four. Eight Quakers guards have logged time in the starting lineup at some point in their careers. A couple of talented freshmen would have added to the rotation at 100 percent, but they got hurt.

They all can't get major game minutes, though. So the pickup games began. A text would go around. Can you make it? … I've got class. … I'm in.

"It gets pretty physical,'' said Jackson Donahue, who helped run the sessions this season with senior Matt MacDonald and junior Jake Silpe. "The friendship kind of gets pushed aside, and it's about making each other better and pushing each other."

MacDonald, a transfer from Fairleigh Dickinson, started 15 games last season but lost his time as Antonio Woods returned to the team after an academic suspension and Caleb Wood found his form, big-time. Darnell Foreman and Ryan Betley always were going to start. Ivy League teams aren't bound by NCAA scholarship limits since there aren't athletic scholarships. A new coach means a transition period. But there are no old and new players on this team. A huge key to the whole thing.

Sophomore Devon Goodman barely saw time early — to the point that the coach's wife would get on him about it every morning. Goodman got two minutes total over seven games before Steve Donahue put him in at Columbia on Feb. 16 and he scored 23 points. He has had major minutes ever since. He still makes the pickup games.

How did MacDonald handle his reduced role? Penn's coach showed how, bringing MacDonald to Sunday's press conference after the Quakers beat Harvard for the Ivy League tournament championship even though MacDonald had played only two minutes. Donahue also made it clear this wasn't a token gesture. The coach talked about how he had the team for two hours but MacDonald was in charge of the other 22.

He also talked about why MacDonald, his first recruit, had gotten in the game Saturday against Yale, just before converting a three-point play.

"He's our best cutter,'' the coach said. "That's a weird thing. I'm looking at our offense. We're going east and west. No one's cutting. To me, it's contagious. If you watch somebody cut — maybe not even consciously, but that's how our offense works. Here goes Matt, goes backdoor, layup. That's happened a couple of times this year."

The 16th-seeded Quakers will head to Wichita, Kan., for Thursday's first-round NCAA tournament matchup with Midwest top seed Kansas as unexpected Ivy champions, after being picked to finish fourth in the league.

"Listen, as a basketball coach, you're used to five guys, a rotation,'' Donahue said Monday morning in his office. "I literally have to gather myself every game before I go in and really talk to myself and look down, 'All right, we're going to do this, this and this …' "

What Donahue, in his third season at Penn, means is that he has to remember who is capable of performing a specific role against a specific opponent. He has talked about how the players who were already there before him stayed, the players who committed showed up, and even some of his first recruits got a starting shot but now have reduced roles.

Give Silpe applause, for instance, for making some huge contributions this season after starting full time as a freshman and getting in only 15 games last season. This season, Silpe played 22 minutes, total, over Penn's first 12 games.

"Over time in practice, you started seeing more poise, confidence, a guy who makes us better,'' Steve Donahue said. "We're not a finished product, so why am I not trying things? Sure enough, I think he wins a game here for us against Yale, two big threes late in the game. Then at Dartmouth, where we're really struggling, he makes three threes in the second half. The crazy thing is, there's no consistency in my distributing minutes to him. The amazing part is, he doesn't change anything about his approach, never shows frustration. All about team."

Silpe is a tough defensive player in addition to seeing the court as well as any player, in his coach's estimation. That meant some minutes on the final road weekend against Yale. The next night, Brown was a different kind of opponent. Jackson Donahue got off the bench and hit a couple of threes, his specialty.

"So I think we're building a program, have great kids who have strengths and weaknesses,'' said Steve Donahue. "To go against certain opponents, whether it's defensively or offensively, that's where our thinking comes in. Brown, it's up and down, and if you don't keep up with them, you're going to have trouble. Well, that's Jackson. He plays with great pace, he makes shots, he knows our offense like the back of his hand, he's from that area, I knew he'd be motivated. We can't guard them to save our life anyway. I know we have to outscore them. I didn't know we'd score 96. We play Yale, their athletic guards, more inclined to go with Jake, a kid who can front, competes, can grind it out."

Does he give players advance notice or just send them in?

"Once again, this is all new to me,'' Donahue said. "Typically I want to — as a coach, and did as a player — know my role. I don't have the luxury of doing that. We haven't had a substantial pedigree of success where I can say, 'I know what I'm going to do here.' I literally went into games this year not knowing who I was going to pull up, based on feel. But that's where we were. The advantage was, I had a stack of guys that I knew would go out and do whatever it takes, whether it was a minute or 10 minutes."

As for the advance notice, they didn't need it. They are ballplayers, into ball.

"When we're on the bench, we see what's going on, what the offense is doing and not doing,'' Silpe said.

"The minute we are called, we know why we're in the game,'' Jackson Donahue said. "We know. If there's no energy, we go in, we're talking, we're loud, we're bringing that energy. If the ball isn't moving — quick pass, quick pass."

"It seems like we sit next to each other every game,'' MacDonald said of himself, Donahue and Silpe. "We usually know when a certain minute, you might be getting in. 'Yo, be ready, Jack.' "

Obviously, there can be frustration about not playing. Getting over that, they acknowledge, is easier when you're winning 24 games. And practices aren't about kicking the starters' butts, not at this time of year.

"It's holding them accountable,'' Jackson Donahue said. "We know they're starters. They know they're starters. They already have that role established. It's making sure that they need to hold that level of play that got them there. That's kind of our job, to make sure they stay on that track and don't slip up at all. It's going to help everyone in the long run."

Meanwhile, those pickup games help take care of competitive juices.

"It's game action,'' MacDonald said. "No one's watching, no one cares — it doesn't matter, but if I lose, I'll be ticked, even after practice."

Somebody isn't playing well in the pickup game, Jackson Donahue said, he's letting that player know.

"It does matter,'' he said.