Penn picked fourth in Ivy League basketball preseason poll

The stakes for a season unlike any other in Penn basketball history were officially set on Wednesday, as the Quakers were picked fourth in the Ivy League's preseason poll.

In all of the Ancient Eight's 50 previous seasons - plus the half-century prior in the Eastern Intercollegiate Basketball League era - the standard was simple: Win the regular-season title or bust.

But the Ivy League's new season-ending conference tournament means Penn needs only to finish in the top half of the standings to earn a shot at ending its decade-long NCAA Tournament drought.

The Ivy tournament will be at the Palestra, with semifinals on Saturday, March 11, 2017, and the final on Selection Sunday, March 12.

Don't call it a title game, though. Officially, the "league champion" will still be the team that finishes atop the regular-season standings. And that's what Penn coach Steve Donahue cares about the most, at least right now.

"As a coach, I don't think you really look at the tournament at this point," he said Wednesday on the Ivy League's season preview conference call. "The thing in this league has always been trying to win the '14-game tournament' [in the regular season], and become Ivy League champs, and that hasn't changed."

But Donahue is well aware that his program's fan base and much of the rest of the league can't help peeking ahead to March.

"We're very fortunate as a league to have this facility to do our first one [in], at least, and do it right," he said. "A lot of leagues in this country unfortunately don't get a lot out of their conference tournaments... Most of the [Ivy League's] coaches and the players realize what this building is, but it will be at another level for [our] conference tournament."

The Palestra will also host the women's tournament on the same days as the men's event. The combined spectacles will make for quite a weekend for a building that has hosted a lot of drama in its 90 years on 33rd Street.

Penn's women's team is an overwhelming favorite to be in their tournament, thanks to forwards Sydney Stipanovich and Michelle Nwokedi. But the men's squad faces questions about its potential.

Among the biggest is who starts at point guard. Sophomore Jake Silpe, who starred at Cherry Hill East High School, is the incumbent. He'll be challenged by Caleb Wood, a junior transfer from Reno, Nev., who arrives after two years of community college on the West Coast.

"It's a good battle," Donahue said. He specifically noted that Wood is "a good all-around basketball player," though he's still adjusting to the physicality of the Division I level.

Donahue also broke some news, announcing that junior reserve Darnell Foreman has just returned to practice after rehabbing a torn meniscus.

The rest of Donahue's team is pretty young. There are just two seniors on the roster, and only one - wing guard Matt Howard - has seen regular playing time. The rest of the squad includes six juniors, five sophomores and six freshmen.

Among the intriguing newcomers are two guards with local ties: Downingtown West's Ryan Betley and Germantown Academy's Devon Goodman. The top frontcourt recruit is AJ Brodeur, a 6-foot-8, 225-pound product of the elite Northfield Mount Hermon prep school in western Massachusetts.

"We're trying to figure out who we are," Donahue said. "I've been pleased with the effort - not thrilled with execution on either side of the ball at this point, but it's a good group of kids."

Penn's season begins Friday, Nov. 11, at Robert Morris, coached by former Quakers guard Andrew Toole. The home opener will be Tuesday, Nov. 29, against Villanova.

Before the official tipoff, there's an intra-squad scrimmage Saturday at the Palestra (1:30 p.m., free of charge; the women's team's scrimmage is at noon).

There's also an Oct. 29 exhibition game at the Palestra against Keiser University, a NAIA program in West Palm Beach, Fla. coached by Rollie Massimino.

As the poll shows, Penn's closest competition for fourth place will be Columbia. The Lions lost a lot of firepower with the graduation of star guard Maodo Lo, who played for the 76ers' Summer League team, and forward Alex Rosenberg.

There's also a new coach, Jim Engles, though he's familiar to the program. Engles was an assistant at Columbia from 2003-08, then was NJIT's head coach until returning to Manhattan's Upper West Side this year.

Princeton was picked No. 1 because of its huge depth of experience. The Tigers have six seniors, including key forwards Henry Caruso, Steven Cook and Spencer Weisz; and five juniors, led by guard Amir Bell.

Harvard, meanwhile, will have a spotlight on its freshmen. The Crimson's 2016 recruiting class included four prospects ranked among ESPN's top 100 prospects in the country: guard Bryce Aiken and forwards Chris Lewis, Robert Baker Jr. and Seth Towns - the last of whom turned down offers from Michigan and Ohio State.

Head coach Tommy Amaker might be happiest, though, about having one more year of point guard Siyani Chambers. The senior tore the ACL in his left knee before last season, and had to withdraw from the school for the entire academic year as the Ivy League does not allow medical redshirting.

"He's our leader. There's not even a debate or question about that," Amaker said. [The players] know it, we know it, and just as importantly, he knows it... Our program, the ball, all those things - they're in his hands."

Yale stole national headlines last season by reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1962, then upsetting Baylor and scaring Duke. The Bulldogs graduated frontcourt stalwarts Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod, but still have high-scoring guard Makai Mason.

There's one more question that much of the Ivy League is wondering about Penn: If the Quakers do make the tournament, how much can they scare the league's powers in a knockout showdown at a raucous Palestra?

We'll have to wait until March to find out.

Here are the full poll results, as voted on by a panel of media across the league:

1. Princeton, 130 points (12 first-place votes)
2. Harvard, 123 points (5 first-place votes)
3. Yale, 101 points
4. Penn, 72 points
5. Columbia, 61 points
6. Dartmouth, 48 points
7. Cornell, 42 points
8. Brown, 35 points