Ryan Betley (above) and Penn struggled from the 3-point arc in a loss to Fairfield on Saturday. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
Penn didn’t kick off the 2017-18 season quite as planned on Saturday.
Though the Quakers led comfortably at Fairfield for the opening 15 minutes, things soon fell apart. Behind 30 points, seven rebounds, and six assists from Tyler Nelson, along with 20 points and eight boards from Wassef Methani, the Stags capitalized on Penn’s offensive struggles to walk away with an 80-72 win.
Here are some takeaways from the game:
1. Penn dies by the three
Heading into the year, we knew Penn would shoot a lot of threes. Just maybe not this many.
The Quakers fired up a program-record 39 three-pointers against Fairfield and converted only nine of those attempts, good for a mere 23.1 percent clip. Penn took more shots from three-point range than from inside the arc, in large part because the Stags made a conscious effort to shut A.J. Brodeur out of the paint using a zone.
Forced to play more of an outside game, Penn’s ball movement wasn’t the concern. In fact, possession was flowing nicely through Brodeur early on, who recorded four first-half assists, and the team had 14 assists to nine turnovers. Though the Quakers settled for a few NBA-range threes and rushed the occasional shot, the majority of Penn’s attempts were just open looks that didn’t find the bottom of the net.
“They were really sagging off and giving us the three more than anything else. They were almost daring us, that’s what was really frustrating,” head coach Steve Donahue said.
“I give Fairfield credit, I thought the matchup was really good. They didn’t want A.J. scoring like he did last year against them,” he added. “They were kind of digging pretty hard and sagging off and making it pretty difficult for him to go one-on-one.”
Ryan Betley, who led the Quakers with 20 points and 10 rebounds, connected on just three his 11 attempts from deep, and he certainly wasn’t the only one who struggled. Jackson Donahue went 1-7 from long range, Darnell Foreman went 2-7, and Brodeur and Devon Goodman each finished 0-4. Caleb Wood was the only one on the team seemingly unaffected, coming off the bench to hit three of four attempts from beyond the arc.
“There was a lot of open ones that didn’t go in. I just think we weren’t comfortable shooting there at times and other times I think we missed shots we normally make,” Donahue said. “That’s been our achilles heel, our inability to be consistent from three.”
Penn took 24.6 three-pointers per game last season and ranked 89th in the country with 8.4 makes each contest, hitting treys at a 33.9 percent rate. With Brodeur moving to more of a stretch-four role this season, the Quakers are expected to see an uptick in three-ball attempts. This performance shouldn’t be a deterrent for the team moving forward, but it wasn’t the start Donahue was hoping for.
Fairfield also struggled from downtown, only shooting a fraction of a percent better than Penn on the afternoon (23.5%). The Stags only took 17 threes on the game, however.
2. Free throws still an issue
The Quakers know all too well what impact missed free throws can have on a game, and inconsistency from the line cost them once again on Saturday. In an eight-point loss, Penn missed eight of its 19 attempts from the stripe, squandering a pair of one-and-ones and another pair of and-ones to headline the missed opportunities.
“Free throws have been a real good defenselessness for us,” Donahue said. “We need to shoot better foul shots for sure.”
The free throw bug didn’t affect everyone on the Quakers, as Darnell Foreman went 7-for-8 and Ryan Betley was 3-for-4. But for A.J. Brodeur, who shot 60.7 percent on foul shots last season, it was another rough day at the line, as he made just one of his four attempts.
“A.J.’s done a good job, he shoots more practice foul shots around the school year,” Donahue said. “A.J. just didn’t make them today.”
Penn shot 65.7% as a team in 2016-17, and attempted the sixth-least free throws per game of any team in the nation. The 19 trips to the line against Fairfield were a step in the right direction in that regard, but the misses remain one of the Quakers’ biggest problems. A missed free throw with 12 seconds to go against Princeton cost Penn a trip to the Ivy League final last season, and that should be all the motivation the team needs going forward.
3. Woods sees limited time despite starting
After sitting out for a season and a half, Penn wasn’t sure Antonio Woods would get back to the same level of play, but sure enough, Woods was present in the starting lineup for the team’s opener. He formed the backcourt along with Foreman and Betley, but he didn’t stay in the game for long. Donahue subbed out the 6-1 combo guard after less than four minutes and used him sparingly for the rest of the game.
Woods finished the game with only eight minutes played, recording a steal and a rebound. Meanwhile, Devon Goodman played 28 minutes in his place and Jackson Donahue played 26.
So, why did Woods sit?
“I thought Dev was playing pretty well when he got in there and they were really packing it in. Darnell and Antonio don’t really look to shoot the three,” Donahue said. “I just thought we needed someone out there that’s comfortable shooting threes. That’s all.”
That change didn’t really help the Quakers shooting-wise, with Goodman finishing 0-4 from downtown and Donahue going 2-12 past the arc. However, Goodman provided Penn with a nice change-of-pace option offensively, driving to the rim a few times to get contested buckets. The six-foot sophomore, who averaged 15.4 minutes per game last season, finished with eight points, three assists, three rebounds, and two steals.
“I think he’s someone that we can consistently get used to helping us here and he did a good job,” Donahue said. “Unfortunately, he missed a couple wide-open threes and it would have been a real help on that end.”
4. Odds and ends
-- Having brought in multiple minutes-ready freshmen and having graduated just one heavy-minutes player, Penn has excellent depth heading into the year. It’s why Donahue felt comfortable leaving Woods out for most of the game, and also why we saw 13 players take the court in the season opener.
Though only eight players saw over three minutes of action for the Quakers, it was a testament to how many different guys Donahue has at his disposal this season.
“I’m not so sure exactly how the rotation is going to go, we have a core group for sure. [We] played a lot of guys,” he said.
-- Freshmen Eddie Scott and Jarrod Simmons played a combined five minutes in their regular season debuts, Scott grabbing one rebound. The pair hopes to be a larger part of the rotation going forward, though this was only the first game, and they will most likely see more significant minutes as the season rolls on.
“Eddie and Jarrod are really a big part of what we’re going to be doing. It’s just very difficult, the first game, going on the road, in particular against a matchup zone, it’s very different, but I expect those two to continue to grow and really progress,” Donahue said. “I think they’re both terrific players and looking forward I think you’ll see a lot more of them.”
Penn’s other two freshmen, Jelani Williams and Mark Jackson, didn’t play on Saturday. Williams is currently still nursing an ACL injury, while Jackson is readjusting to basketball after spending two years on a Mormon mission.
-- Donahue on Penn’s identity: “Each day we’re trying to figure out what’s our identity and we’ve got to grow by getting better each day...I think that’s what you work on. We don’t have a pedigree of winning, we don’t have a winning tradition yet. I think our grit, our toughness, our basketball I.Q. is something that’s got to come forward each and every game, having a team effort as we build this program, and that’s how we won the last half of last year. We played hard today but we didn’t play really smart and we certainly didn’t play tough on the defensive end.”