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Penn is not greater than the sum of their parts

February 2, 2014 Columns No Comments

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Jerome Allen didn’t have to look far to see what he would probably like this team to become on Saturday night. The unfortunate thing is that it was the team wearing the other jerseys that fit the description.

“They’re a pretty solid team, Harvard,” Allen said after the Crimson thrashed his Quakers by a score of 80-50. “They play probably the best brand of selfless basketball in our league.”

Harvard has the best combination of talent, experience and intangibles in the Ivy League. Still, a big reason for the Crimson’s success is that they are bigger than the sum of their parts. Penn, on the other hand, is decidedly not, and that’s the problem.

When Penn opened up Ivy League play by beating arch-rival Princeton, one might have thought that maybe league play will be different for the Quakers. They struggled through non-league play, with wins being hard to come by, but maybe they were going to parlay that into good results in Ivy League play. Some of the struggles come from who they played and where, but it seems not all of it does. After getting swept this weekend, including Saturday night’s blowout loss, it’s fair to wonder if Ivy League play will be any different after all.

Penn has talent a lot of teams in the Ivy League would like to have. There is good depth, and this team had a year of growing pains last year as a young group that also had to deal with injuries. While last year’s 9-22 record, including a 6-8 mark in the Ivy League, can be explained by those factors and a tough non-league schedule, that doesn’t seem to hold up this time around.

And at Penn, this isn’t what’s expected. Championships are what is expected; anything less than that is frowned upon. And when we further examine this season, it becomes clear they aren’t really any closer to another one than they were in October.

Let’s look at the non-league schedule. The Quakers played seven home games, a lot more than many Ivy League teams can get. Their losses have come to rebuilding Temple (home), rebuilding Penn State (home), a good Iowa team (road), disappointing Lafayette (road), a very good Villanova team (road), a somewhat underachieving Wagner team (home), a bad Marist team (road), a decent Rider team (road), struggling George Mason (road), underachieving La Salle (home) and over-achieving Saint Joseph’s (home). Of those team, only Iowa and Villanova look like NCAA Tournament teams even accounting for possible automatic bids.

In other words, they didn’t exactly play a schedule of world-beaters. And they didn’t play well against it at all.

Now, the Quakers are headed back to Philadelphia after losing at up-and-coming Dartmouth and being dominated by Harvard after hanging with the Crimson for a few minutes to start the game. Saturday was the second time they lost by 30 or more points this season, and Allen thought one thing stood out on both nights.

“I think in general this weekend we didn’t compete,” said Allen. “It wasn’t a great weekend for us from a competitive standpoint.”

Penn has plenty of areas for improvement. They defend reasonably well when they don’t foul, as they send opponents to the free throw line over 29 times a game. Opponents are shooting over 40 percent from three-point land against them, with Harvard making 12 of 20 attempts from behind the arc on Saturday night. They are getting out-rebounded on the year, including by a 35-22 margin on Saturday night. They turn the ball over nearly 17 times a game.

Allen, one of the greatest players in school history, knows it’s not just on the players in all of this.

“I’ve got to coach the guys, I’ve got to coach them up,” said the fifth-year head coach. “At the end of the day, it all falls back on me. I’ve got to get better at preparing them the right way.”

The Quakers have two senior starters and three others who are bit players. That means a lot of this crew will have more time together. While the Quakers lack a true small forward they can play for good minutes, the biggest problem might be that none of the younger guards has emerged as a clear point guard of the future once Miles Jackson-Cartwright is done. Tony Hicks can score but has more turnovers than assists, while Jamal Lewis takes better care of the ball but isn’t a scoring threat. Tony Bagtas is talented, but he is a freshman with all the requisite growing pains that tend to come with that. And while Jackson-Cartwright is still there, often two of the others are playing alongside him.

There is a lot of time left in the season, as this was just the first weekend of back-to-back games. Penn was on the road, and it’s tough for teams to win on the road in this league. But this isn’t what is expected there, and as Allen saw his team, he didn’t see what he hoped to see. He saw the other team looking more like that, and the scoreboard was not kind to the Quakers as it has been too many times this season.

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