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Penn basketball in a state of flux

04/15/2014, 6:45pm EDT
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Despite the fact that Penn returned every player from its 2012-13 roster, the Quakers managed to get worse in head coach Jerome Allen‘s fourth full year at the helm.

It was obvious that something about the basketball program needed to change.

The only question was what changes would come, and now that question is starting to get an answer.

First, assistant coach Scott Pera departed after two years on the bench to join his friend and new Rice head coach Mike Rhoades down in Texas. The next day, word got out that freshman guard Tony Bagtas had been arrested back on March 24; he was eventually charged with multiple counts of burglary, among other things, though he’d been removed from the team even before his arrest.

Finally, yesterday the news broke that in addition to Bagtas, two other players–sophomore wing Julian Harrell and junior forward Henry Brooks–were also no longer with the program. According to the Daily Pennsylvanian, Harrell is looking to transfer while Brooks is unclear of his future plans.

Suddenly, a team that had nearly 20 players on the roster at points this past season finds itself with just nine returning players going into next year, in addition to three incoming freshman.

This year’s Quakers struggled to an 8-20 overall record, going 0-4 in the Big 5 for the second year in a row and just 5-9 in the Ivy League. Aside from a home win over Princeton to open up Ivy play 1-0, there weren’t many positives to take away from a team that vastly underachieved all year.

A coaching change was seen as unlikely, considering Penn is changing Athletic Directors this summer–Steve Bilsky is retiring on July 1, and M. Grace Calhoun is coming in from Loyola (Ill.) to replace him. With Bilsky unlikely to fire a coach as one of his last acts before leaving the school and Calhoun unlikely to put the program in that position late in the summer.

So–considering the season has been over for over a month–Allen’s job appears to be safe for one more year. But everything below him is indeed getting a very thorough shake-up.

Though it’s certainly not good news, the departures could end up being a blessing in disguise for the program.

Allen struggled with so many pieces on his roster, trying to mix-and-match his lineups in what seemed like a two-year-long experiment that never quite seemed to turn out any consistently positive results. A smaller lineup could mean more defined roles and less standing around during practice or spending too much time on the bench.

The players that left, while they certainly would have contributed next year, were far from the Quakers’ best. Brooks, a 6-8 big man from Atlanta, averaged 4.1 ppg and 2.8 rpg last year, which actually represented a decline in production from his freshman and sophomore years. Harrell, a 6-5 wing, averaged 5.1 ppg in his only season of play this year, appearing in 12 contests.

Also gone due to graduation are starters Miles Jackson-Cartwright (11.6 ppg, 3.4 apg) and Fran Dougherty (12.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg), plus reserves Dau JokCam Gunter and Steve Rennard.

The key pieces to the rebuild will be juniors Tony Hicks and Darien Nelson-Henry, who suddenly find themselves by far the most visible names on the team. Hicks, a 6-2 scoring guard out of Illinois, averaged 14.9 ppg last season and already has over 700 points in his Penn career. Nelson-Henry, a 6-10 center from Washington, averaged 10.6 ppg and 5.3 rpg last season, but needs to cut down on his fouls as he was limited to just 21.0 mpg.

Obviously it’s going to be much more than just those two players stepping up. This year’s freshman class, which didn’t have a player averaging more than Matt Howard‘s 2.1 ppg, certainly will go from little-used to a big part of the rotation. The incoming freshmen, especially 6-6 forward Mike Auger and talented combo guard Antonio Woods, are going to be thrown into the fire. 

Maybe this team is still two years away from making a run at an Ivy title. Allen would still have to show his new athletic director something this upcoming season, some sort of improvement from the year’s beginning to its end, something to show that the future still has hope.

Allen has had one successful year, going 20-13 in 2011-12 with stellar senior guard Zack Rosen leading the way. Other than that season, however, he’s just 36-72 (.333) since taking over for Glenn Miller a few games into the 2009-10 season.

It remains to be seen how much leeway that Calhoun will give to Allen. At a school that was once not just a powerhouse in the Ivy League but nationally, it’s clear that this level of play won’t sit for long.

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