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Back in Ivy League, Donahue wants to make Penn a title contender

10/12/2015, 9:45am EDT
By Connor Northrup

Penn head coach Steve Donahue gestures during practice on Oct. 8, 2015. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Connor Northrup (@ConnorNJ4Life)

(Ed. Note: This article is part of CoBL's 2015-16 College Season Preview, which will run from October 2-November 13, the first day of games. For the complete rundown, click here)

Steve Donahue enters his inaugural season as head coach of Penn optimistic as he takes over a program that last had a winning season in 2012.

After Penn won just 26 games in the last three years, the former Cornell and Boston College coach is not worried about the past.

“I don’t necessarily walk into the gym and think this is a last-place Ivy League team, I don’t sense that,” Donahue said.

The Quakers finished last season at (9-19), placing last in the Ivy League with just four conference wins. Penn averaged 11.8 assist per game last year and shot 43.4 percent from the field.

Penn ranked 325 in the NCAA in points per game with 60.3 last season, a department where the team still struggles.

“It’s obviously not perfect execution-wise, defense is ahead of the offense,” Donahue said. “But I’ve just been very pleased with trying to accept coaching and then going out and trying to do their best every day.”

Penn returns with three starters from last season, senior center Darien Nelson-Henry, senior guard Tony Hicks and junior guard Matt Howard. Despite the losing season, Donahue said the three returners benefited from last season.

“It’s a pretty good positive, even though they’ve been through so much losing, I think they benefitted from playing, going through that and now they’re a much better basketball player.” Donahue said. “I think there’s a lot of kids that want to compete naturally, and I’ve had teams where guys would want to score and want to shoot but I sense that this group has a pretty good culture of ‘we’ve got to compete’ and they do.”

With three seniors on the roster who witnessed Penn’s past struggles, Donahue wants to give them a new opportunity.

“I wouldn’t be really being beneficial or doing my job properly if I wasn’t trying to win an Ivy League title for my seniors,” Donahue said. “But when you have guys of this quality that have been through so much, I’m trying to absolutely challenge for a championship this year.”

Donahue is using encouragement on aspects of the game to help his team gain confidence to compete at the top of the conference.

“What I ask them to focus in on, whether we expect to win a championship or not, I’m telling them that this is how we’ll do it,” Donahue said. “Every day, the process, judging things qualitatively, just watching like man we’re really cutting hard, we’re really sharing the ball, we’re really guarding, we’re getting out on the ball screen properly, and not necessarily looking ‘Hey, we made 10 threes.’ Because eventually, my belief is that’s going to help us win.”

Hicks finished with a team-high 334 points last year, a 13.2 ppg average. He is looking to make the most of his final season as a Quaker, but is adjusting to Donahue’s style of coaching.

“It’s a lot more fast-paced, and we’re going to be shooting a lot more threes. I think you’ll be surprised to see Darien stepping outside,” Hicks said. “I’m really excited. It’s up-and-down. He wants us to get a lot of shots up, score as much as we can.”

One player who is looking to contribute again after last season is sophomore guard Antonio Woods. In his freshman season, Woods led the team with 106 assists while averaging 8.4 points a game.

Adapting to a new coaching style can take time, but Woods said it should be worth the wait.

“He’s trying to incorporate it so that in late October, early November, we don’t have to worry about taking those steps and we can just play off instincts,” Woods said. “That’s a big thing.”

After coaching within the Ivy League for 25 years, Donahue wants to use his core of returning players to make a run at a league championship.

“I think you’ll see for the first time maybe since I’ve been in the league, there’s not a unanimous choice to win the league, maybe not two, it might be three,” Donahue said. “We’re not one of them. So that’s a different type of year, even for someone like myself that’s been around this league for 25 years.”

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