Penn blown away by crowd enthusiasm at open practice

NCAA Penn Basketball
Penn forward Max Rothschild at practice Wednesday.

WICHITA, Kan. — The Penn band was playing and the crowd, which almost filled the lower bowl of 15,750-seat Intrust Bank Arena, was cheering wildly as the Quakers players took the court.

All for an open practice.

Penn was the first of the eight teams that will compete in Wichita beginning Thursday to stage an open practice. It was a lot of shooting, dribbling, and fundamentals, but the crowd was soaking it all in and so were the Penn players and coaches.

No. 16-seeded Penn (24-8) will face top seed Kansas (27-7) at 2 p.m. Thursday in an opening-round NCAA Midwest Regional game.

The Quakers got a good pre-game taste of the atmosphere in this basketball-mad state on Wednesday morning.

“I have done this 10 times and there had never been anybody in the building, maybe 10-12 people and a few parents,” said Penn coach Steve Donahue, who went to the NCAA tournament six times as a Penn assistant and three more times as head coach of Cornell. “Today was mind-blowing. It was incredible.”

At the peak of the day, the NCAA announced the crowd reached 13,695.

Kansas University is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Wichita and many of the Jayhawks fans were in attendance Wednesday. But unlike some fan bases that might boo the opponent, this one greeted Penn enthusiastically.

A large portion of the fan base was schoolchildren bused in for the event. That’s how big basketball is in Kansas. Each team had a 40-minute open workout. After Penn came North Carolina State and then Kansas.

“I didn’t expect this,” Penn point guard Darnell Foreman said. “First of all, having so many kids come, that was pretty cool and all the Kansas fans intrigued about who you are and still waiting for their team. That fan base is crazy.”

The attention caught Penn a little off-guard, in a positive way.

“It was awesome,” said Penn leading scorer Ryan Betley, averaging 14.5 points. “We didn’t expect this.”

Even though Kansas will have a sizable and some would suggest dominant rooting section Thursday, Donahue has surely been picking up fans in Wichita with his appreciation of playing there. Donahue talked up Wichita as soon as Penn received the bid Sunday and has continued since arriving.

“That is what is great about going to a place like Wichita, which really appreciates college basketball,” said Donahue, standing outside the Penn locker room Wednesday after the open practice. “It was so much fun for our guys to experience this.”

The only thing that wasn’t big-time was the locker room assigned to Penn on Wednesday. The players were cramped when media members came in for interviews. Reporters were literally tripping over each other to get to players.

Conversely, Kansas was assigned a much bigger locker room for the Wednesday session.

A product of the No. 1 seed? A home-state advantage?

Either way, the small locker room didn’t take away from the experience Penn is enjoying. In addition to their greeting at the arena, the players say the town has welcomed the Quakers enthusiastically.

What also has been interesting is the genuine respect that Kansas has shown Penn, with coach Bill Self saying he was stunned to learn Penn was a No. 16 seed, and players talking about the virtues of the Quakers.

There is no bulletin-board material here. No big shots looking down on potential upstarts.

Kansas just won the Big 12 tournament, has captured 14 consecutive league titles and is making its record 29th straight NCAA tournament appearance, so it would be an exaggeration to suggest the Jayhawks fear Penn.

Respect them to the hilt?

No question.

“From watching film, they look like a pretty good team,” said Kansas point guard Devonte’ Graham, the Big 12 player of the year. “They move well without the ball, shoot the ball well, do a good job of playing defense and packing the lane in and not letting guys drive. So we are trying to figure out a way to be aggressive, yet play smart, get the ball in and make them have to rotate and do different things.”

Penn has gained the attention not only of Kansas but its rabid fans. Now comes the hard part, justifying all the respect and adulation the Quakers have received since winning the Ivy League championship Sunday.