Penn basketball set for trip to Italy

It's so hot out that Penn isn't conducting its summer practice sessions at the Palestra. (Jonathan Tannenwald/

The Penn basketball team is headed to Italy on Thursday for a 10-day trip. Before the Quakers left town, Jerome Allen and some of his players chatted with reporters about expectations for the tour, and how things have gone so far this summer.

Head coach Jerome Allen

Talk about the importance of this trip not only from a basketball perspective, but also from a chemistry and team bonding perspective.

The unfortunate thing about it is that we’re not allowed to take the incoming freshmen who will be a part of the experience come fall. But with that being said, I think the senior group – from sophomores through seniors – they can easily work younger guys in.

From their standpoint, I think this is a life-changing experience if they come in with the right mindset.

And what mindset is that? What do you want to see from the players on the trip?

Well, I’m trying to remove myself – I know what living in Europe did for me. It’s a 10-day trip and you can’t really immerse yourself completely in the culture and way of living. But what you can do is try to see what works for other societies.

To be able to take a gondola through Venice or go inside the Sistine Chapel and look at what Michelangelo did – he spent almost 12 years on his back – or see the Roman Colosseum, something that was built I don’t know how long ago. The fact that it’s still standing, it puts you in awe.

We have construction projects today and they have all the resources to get it done as quick as possible. These people did it by hand and with grit. All that stuff is humbling, and I would hope they can apply it in their everyday lives as they go forward. I think they’ll be better people because of it.

How did the trip come about?

Penn has done tours before, and Steve [Bilsky, Penn’s athletic director] asked if this is something we would like to do, and where we would like to go. And if something you think the guys would benefit from, and if this is the right group, then I’ll get behind it. That was the gist of it.

We talked about a couple of countries that would be a great experience to see, and it came down to Italy and Israel. I said let’s try to take the guys to Italy. One didn’t win over the other, but he said okay, fine, wherever you want to go, let’s go.

Miles Cartwright traveled to France and Belgium last summer with a touring squad of American college players, and he has talked in the past about what he learned from that experience. How much do you think your players can gain from exposure to the European style of basketball?

It’s different. It’s FIBA rules – the lane is a lot bigger, you can slap the ball off the rim, traveling is called differently. I don’t want to get these guys to try to adjust how they approach the game for a three- or four-game window. It’s more having another opportunity to compete and work on our stuff, and see how we can adjust on the fly.

I’m not really trying to put a lot of stuff in them, but just to see their improvement, how much time they spent in the gym during the summer, what their conditioning is like, without being monotonous in terms of getting ready for the regular season.

And then for them to go out and start to develop some type of chemistry with the unit that will be on the trip. Can they play with osmosis, not really having to call anything out? Communicating with body language, the raising of an eyebrow or something. I just really want to see where they’re at, and go out and have fun.

Have you said anything in particular to your senior class? Last year you didn’t really have any seniors. Did those guys learn how to be leaders over the last year?

There’s no substitute for experience. Even if you’ve never done something before, when it’s your chance to assume a new role, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to naturally kick in.

There’s some time that you have to spend in that role, not necessarily to master it but to be comfortable, and embrace it and be happy about your purpose. Hopefully for those guys last year was a learning experience more than anything, as far as the expectations that are needed.

Everybody talks about Rob Belcore, Zack Rosen and Tyler Bernardini, and having to follow them. Leadership isn’t something that you just naturally evolve into. But I think they’ll be a much better group in terms of that this year.

You talked earlier about some of the growth that you want to see from your guys on this trip and heading into the season. Are there guys who you’ve seen who have done well in their offseason work already?

We don’t have the rule in place where we’re allowed to touch these guys in the summertime. But based on the first three days of practice, I thought Tony Hicks has had a pretty good summer. Miles has been steady, Fran [Dougherty] has been solid.

Simeon Esprit and Greg Louis have been surprises thus far. Not surprising in terms of ability, but in terms of their consistency and how they approach the game. Hopefully those things can continue, though we’ll never really know until it’s time to get started.

How important was it for the rising sophomores to have gotten so much experience as freshmen last season?

It’s great. In the ideal world, you have a program where you don’t depend heavily on freshmen, but the fact of the matter is that it was probably a dream come true for those guys to be able to get on the court right away.

We started three freshmen, and we really played four as it was Greg Louis’ first year of college basketball. There’s nothing better than on-the-job training.

I think that in and of itself helped those guys for year two in terms of expectations, knowing where the help is coming from, knowing how to close out on defenders. Knowing what I expect.

The transition from high school to college, no matter how talented someone is, it’s an adjustment.

Senior guard Miles Cartwright

Going into your senior year, what have you and the other seniors talked about in preparation for the season?

We just have to bring it every day. We have to win every day, and that has been the theme for us since last season ended, pretty much. We felt like we took advantage of too many days and didn’t bring our all. These five days of practice, we are just trying to compete as much as possible.

What do you sense from the team health-wise? A lot of players were banged up at the end of last season.

For the most part, everybody came back in shape and ready to go. Some guys have still been recovering from injuries last season, but we’re pretty much all back.

Given those injuries, do you think there’s a freshman or sophomore from last season who stepped up and took advantage of their ability to play?

I think Tony [Hicks] and Darien [Nelson-Henry] really carried us toward the end of the season. Tony’s shot got going and Darien was just dominant in some of those games in the paint. Those two came back and worked really hard during the summer, and we’re going to rely on them big time next season.

How important is Darien now? His size is something that the program hasn’t always  had, and that you don’t often find in the league.

Yeah. We need him to win. I think he gives us an advantage down there that most teams don’t have: a seven-foot, skilled, passing, scoring big man. That’s not very common in college basketball, especially in the Ivy League.

We need him to win. We need him to be aggressive and we need him to be dominant.

Because of Ivy League rules, you don’t get to have as many summer practices as other Division I programs. Does that make the preparation for this trip even more crucial?

Yes. Any opportunity we have to come together with coach Allen and the rest of the coaching staff – for all 20 of us to come together, I think it’s great. We might not be playing for something right now but we’re treating it like we’re getting ready for an Ivy League championship game at Princeton.

The practices have been pretty intense. Coach Allen, as always, has been focused on defense and details. We really want to get out there and show what we have been working on.

Talk about the trip and what it will mean in terms of team bonding, camaraderie and such.

Most of us have never been to Europe. That brings us together in the sense that we’re all going through this together. It’s something that this program hasn’t done in a while, so we’re really excited. We’ve been having team dinners and we have spent more time together in these last five days than we’ve had pretty much all summer.

Is there something from your trip to Europe last summer that you can bring to this experience? Have you talked to your teammates about that?

The only thing we really talked about is style of play. The way the refs are going to call games is a lot different in terms of footwork and how much contact we’re allowed. I have been talking to the guys about that.

But going to Italy is new for all of us. I’ve never been, I don’t think any of us have been except for coach Allen. There’s nothing really I can say about going to Italy. We’re just all really excited to go through this as a team.

Not many teams have 20 players on the roster as you do at the moment. How does that change the dynamic of practices?

We have bodies to scrimmage, which is perfect. Last year we were struggling to get 10 guys. I think it brings out the best in guys knowing that they have somebody behind them who’s capable of coming in and contributing.

The competition in practice has been great, and the freshmen having been here – though they haven’t been able to practice. But it keeps everybody on their toes and it shows our coach what we’re able to do.

Sophomore guard Jamal Lewis

The freshman class last year had a very successful season last year. What are you looking to improve on now coming into this year?

We’re just trying to get better. We’re one year older, one year wiser, trying to learn from the mistakes we made last year and build off of those.

Lots of college coaches talk about how much growing up takes place when a high school senior becomes a college freshman. Talk about your experience with that and what you now bring into your sophomore season.

It was definitely an experience. Coach Allen being the stickler for detail that he is, I really learned a lot about the game through all the details he wants his players to get used to. And just being the guy that wants perfection, every practice, every second. It forced me to grow up quick.

Him throwing me out there like he did last year, I really had to learn from experience. I learned from Miles and a lot of the other guys a lot, but the majority of the learning I did last year was from being out there on the court.

It must have been nice to have Jerome’s confidence, knowing that you were going out there and really learning by doing it, not just watching from the bench.

Yeah, most definitely. Most players do learn from actually doing it, so the fact that I was able to go out there and he had that confidence in me, that really meant a lot.

You talked about how Miles taught you a lot last season. Tony Bagtas is coming in as a freshman this season with a lot of hype from fans who watched him in high school. Do you think you’ll be able to show him the ropes the way Miles did for you?

Oh, all the time. I’m going to be in his ear at every practice, making sure that he gets some of the details that I didn’t get last year, and trying to prepare him for when he gets out there.

The freshmen can’t go on the trip to Italy due to Ivy League rules, but for the rest of you, how important is it going to be for the players to have a solid week and a half together?

It’s going to be a ton of fun. I love spending time with my teammates. They’re all funny and cool. It’s definitely going to be important to get that sense of camaraderie, and trust that all good teams need. To be able to spend time with them for 10 days is going to be really special.

Sophomore guard Tony Hicks

Talk about the work that you’ve put in over the summer and where you feel like you’re at right now.

I’ve been working out a lot on my own, and also getting help from whoever I can back home in Chicago. Taking in as much advice as I can. I’ve been focusing a lot more on the mental part of the game.

I felt that last year, when things started to slow down for me it was because of my approach than just the work I was putting in. I think that has been the biggest change.

How much did you learn as a freshman last year that will help you out from the start of your sophomore season?

You get adjusted to the speed pretty fast. It’s not so much the skill, it’s more your approach – you can’t take any plays off. You have to be mentally ready every play. You’ll be exposed pretty quick if you take plays off on defense. Things like that. The mentality has to change.

Did it help or hurt to be practically thrown in at the deep end right away, in terms of minutes on the floor?

I think it helped. I don’t think anything is better than in-game experience, so that helped a lot. Just getting in-game experience with the college game.

How important are you and Darien going to be to the success of this team this season?

Coach has been putting a lot of emphasis on us to have a bigger role, especially for me to be more vocal of a leader. That’s important. If we just do our jobs and try to make everyone else better, then we’ll be fine.

How much do you think you’ll work with Tony Bagtas to teach him how to adjust to college basketball and life at Penn?

A lot. It’s going to be easy, because Tony listens a lot and wants to get better. He asks questions. So whenever you have that state of mind, it makes it a lot easier. He definitely can help us win games this year.