Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
(Ed. Note: This piece is one of a series of six that the CoBL staff is putting together on how the 2020-21 season went for each of the City 6 and how the future’s shaping up. Links to the rest of the series will go here as they’re published: Drexel | La Salle | Penn | Saint Joseph’s | Temple | Villanova)
Penn’s season went a bit different from the rest of the area programs, in that it didn’t have one.
It was back in November, right around the time that the 2020-21 season would have started in any normal year, that the Ivy League cancelled all winter sports for all eight of its member institutions. It wasn’t a surprising decision, considering the Ancient Eight’s leadership was the first to pull the plug at the end of the 2019-20 season, cancelling the Ivy League tournament as the COVID pandemic really started to take hold in the United States, just a few days before the rest of college hoops followed suit.
Head coach Steve Donahue (above, last season) used the lost 2020-21 season to evaluate his first five years at the helm. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Instead of spending his sixth year as head coach of the Quakers on the sidelines, working to improve on a 16-11 (8-6 Ivy) record from the year before, Steve Donahue found himself with another 12 months to prepare for the 2021-22 season and resume the hunt for his second Ivy League tournament title after winning it all in 2018.
“I thought it was a good sabbatical,” he told CoBL by phone earlier this spring. “It gave me a chance to take a step back and look at what we did the first five years: where we came from, how we built it, the kids that we had really helped us turn this around into a championship program.
“And I just thought now we can take this to another level, and it made me rethink the way we play and the way we play offense and defense and how we recruit, it can be different.”
The lost year is going to change the Quakers’ program in more ways than one, and it’s going to be a group that doesn’t look much like its predecessor by the time it finally takes the court this November — about 20 months from their last game, March 7, 2020 against Columbia.
The COVID pandemic presented a unique issue for the Ivy League from an athletics standpoint. It’s the only Division I conference which doesn’t provide athletic scholarships, so the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted to all student-athletes due to the pandemic means Ivy League hoopers who want to take advantage need to pay for another year out of pocket, take out more loans, or hope their financial aid continues.
On top of that, the Ivy League traditionally doesn’t allow grad students to play on its undergraduate teams. Its school presidents voted in February to allow a one-time exemption to that rule, but that ruling came far too late for many seniors, especially those playing fall and winter sports.
“I don’t think any basketball player in the whole league’s going to do it,” Donahue said. “You’ve got to get into these schools, the decision was late for most of the programs, and financial aid is hit-or-miss. So I think there may be a few lacrosse players here and there, maybe a football player here and there, across the league.”
It was an announcement that certainly came too late for Penn’s three remaining seniors; Eddie Scott transferred to Long Beach State and Jarrod Simmons to Hofstra, while Mark Jackson is headed into the business world. The only player remaining from Penn’s 2017 class, Jelani Williams, missed his first three seasons of college hoops with knee injuries and still needs another year to complete his undergraduate degree; Donahue expects Williams to get at least one if not two extra years beyond that from the NCAA, but no matter what he’ll have to play them somewhere else.
As for the non-seniors wanting to play an extra year, it’s not that easy for them to do so and stay at Penn for the entirety of their careers. In addition to the financial aspect, Penn’s players would have to increase their academic load and double-major in order to extend their undergraduate stay.
Instead of doing that, two of the team’s players — would-be sophomores Jordan Dingle and Max Martz took the year off entirely. Dingle, a 6-3 point guard and the 2019-20 Ivy League Rookie of the Year after averaging 13.5 ppg and 3.4 rpg, was at home in New Jersey; Martz, a 6-6 wing forward who averaged 7.9 ppg and 3.7 rpg as a freshman, had an internship in Philadelphia. Donahue was allowed to check in on them, but as they weren’t part of his program, he wasn’t allowed to talk hoops.
When they return to the school for the 2021 fall semester they’ll be true sophomores, along with this year’s freshman class of Clark Slajchert (Oak Park HS, Ca.), Andrew Lazkwoski (St. Mark’s, Tex.) and Colin Chambers (Episcopal Academy, Pa.). There was another committed member of the 2020 class, Toronto native Matteus Case, but Donohue said Case never arrived on campus this fall due to the pandemic and he hit the transfer portal in May.
Jordan Dingle (above, last season) spent the 2020-21 year back home in New Jersey to preserve a year of eligibility with Penn. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
But that still meant there were a dozen or so players off the Penn roster enrolled at school for the 2020-21 season, and it was that group that finally got some good news in January when Penn decided to let its athletics teams begin some workouts in February.
Donahue and his staff ended up getting in nearly two months of practices: a couple weeks of socially-distanced workouts at first, then full-time practices as COVID cases continued to decline.
“We started out with, I think two and a half weeks of no groups, social distancing, 3-4 guys in the gym, and then we progressed to 10 guys in the gym,” Donahue said, “and then I would say we did six straight weeks of what would be considered regular practices.”
Donahue estimated that over the course of those practices, his team got in the equivalent of “15 games’ worth of live action,” the benefit of an oversized Ivy League roster allowing his guys to play 5-on-5 even with a few faces missing. And those are key reps and shots for a group that needs as much on-court time as it can get.
On paper, the Quakers have to replace a ton of production from their last on-court iteration: A.J. Brodeur (17.3 ppg/8.9 rpg) wrapped up one of the best Penn careers of the last quarter-century, while fellow program stalwarts Devon Goodman (13.6 ppg/3.2 apg) and Ryan Betley (11.6 ppg/5.8 rpg) have also exhausted their college eligibility. Only three of Penn’s top 10 scorers from 2019-20 return: Dingle, Martz, and 6-5 guard Lucas Monroe (3.4 ppg/3.2 rpg), who will be a third-year student in his second year of eligibility this winter.
But there’s ready talent waiting in the wings. Jonah Charles, a 6-3 combo guard and another member of that 2019 incoming class, looked ready to contribute alongside his classmates two years ago before a preseason injury forced him to redshirt that season. There’s also Max Lorca-Lloyd, the 6-10 big man and four-star prospect who chose Penn over high-major offers.
Lorca-Lloyd played in nine games as a true freshman but only for a total of 31 minutes, averaging 1.3 ppg and 1.6 rpg. The lanky, athletic post player is a totally different player from Broduer, a stocky and skilled 6-8 forward, and so he wasn’t quite the right fit for the Quakers’ system two years ago. Expect that to change.
“There will still be some really core fundamental things that we do but I also think we can take this program to another level by playing slightly differently on both sides of the ball,” Donahue said. “We’re going to play even more differently than we would have this year, next year, and Max has a lot to do with it.
“He has skills, he’s just different,” added Donahue, who’s 83-64 (.565) through his first five seasons. “It’s not like he’s going to be a 3-point shooter, but he’s a really good finisher around the rim, he’s gotten stronger, he’s a defensive presence, he can pass and we’re going to have a lot of different guys around him as well. I anticipate him being a very impactful player.”
Another takeaway from spring practices: “Clark Slajchert is without a doubt going to be a really good player from day one, he’s going to be ready and these two months have really helped him.”
One more: “On the defensive end, I think we did a good job with the things we wanted to — limiting 3s, not fouling — but it also had some detriment. It didn’t allow us to turn people over, it didn’t allow us to take away shots at the rim and maybe transition a little bit, and I think we can do a lot more of that with this group.”
There are still five months to go until Nov. 9, 2021, the opening night of the 2021-22 college hoops season, if Penn plays a game the first day it’s able. After the long wait, no one would blame Donahue if he wanted to schedule five games in a row to start to make up for lost time.
“Yes I would have loved to have played, but I also understood why we didn’t, and the kids didn’t lose a year,” Donahue said, “so [...] looking at what we have, I think we’re in really good shape going forward.”