Penn picked second in Ivy League preseason men's basketball poll
For the first time in years, the Penn men's basketball team enters a season with serious depth in both its frontcourt and its backcourt.
That's the main reason why the Quakers were picked second in this year's Ivy League preseason poll, establishing Jerome Allen's team as the lead challenger to two-time conference champion Harvard.
"I think we've got a chance to be really, really good, and I'm excited to sit in a seat to watch it all," Allen said on a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
For much of its history, and certainly during Allen's tenure, Penn has been led by a star guard. This year, the spotlight will shine brightest on the post instead of the perimeter.
Senior forward Fran Dougherty (New Britain, Pa./Archbishop Wood) is finally back at full health after missing much of last season due to illness and injury. He's likely to partner with sophomore center Darien Nelson-Henry, who was a revelation in his first year on 33rd Street. Nelson-Henry's size and touch will likely make him one of the Ivy League's toughest big men to defend.
With those two as starters, Penn will be able to cast three frontcourt veterans as depth off the bench: Henry Brooks, Cameron Gunter and Greg Louis. The Quakers also bring in two freshman bigs, 6-foot-8 Dylan Jones and 6-foot-10 David Winfield. The latter is the son of famed former Major League Baseball outfielder Dave Winfield.
Allen declined to rank his depth chart when asked, but he said he likes "our frontcourt players against anybody that we'll play against on our schedule this year."
As for the backcourt, the mantle of leadership will be assumed by senior captain Miles Cartwright. His fortunes have risen and fallen at times, but he should be able to settle into a shooting guard role this season. Dynamic sophomore Tony Hicks will likely play the point. Defensive specialist Jamal Lewis and three-point marksman Patrick Lucas-Perry, both sophomores, as well as senior Dau Jok should be among the top bench options.
Hicks' offseason training drew strong praise from Allen, who knows a few things about leading an offense at the Palestra.
"He has really stepped it up [and] taken on a responsibility of trying to improve," Allen said. "In our league, it would be tough to find someone who is going to be more talented than that kid, and to his credit he has worked hard."
Though the spotlight will shine on Cartwright and Hicks early, it's possible that two freshman guards could steal the show. Tony Bagtas might have the best pure point guard skills on Penn's squad, but he'll need time to develop. Matt Howard, a swingman, is likely to be the first-year player who sees the most minutes.
The "three" guard role is one that the Quakers – and indeed most Ivy Leagues teams - haven't always been able to fully utilize. The mix of athleticism and skill that such players can bring to a game often leads to recruits at that position getting calls from higher-profile schools.
Howard, a South Carolina native, picked Penn over Stanford and Virginia Tech, among many others. That's a feather in Jerome Allen's cap as he tries to return his alma mater to the top of the Ivy League.
The road back to the top starts on November 9, when Penn hosts Big 5 rival Temple at the Palestra. Outside of the Big 5, marquee non-conference games include hosting Penn State and visiting Iowa and George Mason. Conference play begins on January 11 when Princeton visits the Palestra. It will be the 229th edition of Ivy League basketball's signature rivalry.
Standing in the Quakers' way is two-time reigning champion Harvard. Tommy Amaker's Crimson squad this season could be one of the best in Ancient Eight history. Athletic forward Kyle Casey and key guard Brandyn Curry are back from a yearlong withdrawal from the program after being caught up in a campus-wide academic scandal. Curry and sophomore Siyani Chambers were both named to the Cousy Award watch list, highlighting the nation's top point guards.
Senior three-point expert Laurent Rivard and junior swingman Wesley Saunders are also likely to play key roles in the backcourt. Juniors Steve Moundou-Missi and Kenyatta Smith, as well as much-touted freshman Zena Edosomwan, will rotate with Casey in a stacked frontcourt.
With so much talent at his disposal, Amaker's biggest challenge is likely to be managing the minutes he gives out. He has been showered with praise by observers coming into the season, and acknowledged as much Wednesday.
But the former Seton Hall and Michigan coach politely demurred when asked about the depth of his squad
"We'll make it work, and they'll make it work," Amaker said. "The depth may look one way in October, but come January it could be a whole different way of looking at things."
Princeton is used to being an Ivy League power, but it could be a rebuilding year in Old Nassau. Third-year coach Mitch Henderson's team was picked fourth in the preseason poll. The Tigers can no longer rely on center Ian Hummer, last season's conference Player of the Year. Henderson has eight players on his squad who stand 6-foot-8 or taller, but none is quite ready to be the star.
Henderson said he expects senior Will Barrett, juniors Bobby Garbade and Denton Koon, and sophomore Hans Brase to all feature in various ways.
If anything, Princeton's best candidate for team leader will come from the backcourt: senior guard T.J. Bray.
"I don't think we've got a go-to guy," Henderson said. "I'll do the best I can, but I think we're going to play a slightly different brand of ball."
For a Princeton coach to claim his team will play a different style can be a loaded statement. Henderson didn't elaborate too much, but he did say he thinks "you'll see us open up some."
A potential wild card this season could be Yale, picked third in the preseason poll. James Jones, the dean of the Ancient Eight's coaching fraternity, has one of his most talented squads ever. Guards Armani Cotton and Javier Duren will join forwards Justin Sears and Brandon Sherrod in a quite athletic starting lineup.
But the Bulldogs will have to overcome a major absence due to injury. Senior big man Jeremiah Kreisberg will miss the season as he recovers from back surgery.
It's been a while since the Bulldogs were truly among the league's elite. If Jones and his players can overcome the absence of Kreisberg, Yale might get back there again this season.
Ivy League Men's Basketball Preseason Poll Results
1. Havard (136 points, 17 first-place votes)
2. Penn (100 points)
3. Yale (96 points)
4. Princeton (93 points)
5. Brown (74 points)
t-6. Cornell (38 points)
t-6. Dartmouth (38 points)
8. Columbia (37 points)