WICHITA, Kan. — The first-round NCAA tournament loss to Kansas had just finished a few moments earlier, and Penn’s players were trying to put things all in perspective. The Quakers (24-9), picked fourth in the preseason Ivy League poll, shared the regular-season title with Harvard and beat the Crimson in the league championship game to earn the berth.
Penn’s players were disappointed to lose, of course, even though the Jayhawks are seeded No. 1 in the Midwest Region for a reason. Yet for the younger players — and they are the ones who constitute the majority — the thought of next season brought plenty of optimism.
“I am encouraged for next year,” said sophomore forward AJ Brodeur, a first-team all-Ivy League selection.
He should be.
Penn was 13-15 in the 2016-17 season, and many figured the Quakers were still another year away from serious contention. That won’t be the case next preseason.
The Quakers lose one starter, point guard Darnell Foreman, and a key reserve in Caleb Wood, but the rest of the regular rotation players are back.
“We will miss all our seniors, but we will be more talented each year going forward,” coach Steve Donahue said Friday, already planning for next season.
In addition to Brodeur, Penn returns its leading scorer, second-team all-Ivy sophomore Ryan Betley (14.3 points per game); junior guard Antonio Woods, the team’s best defensive player; and starting center Max Rothschild.
Sophomore guard Devon Goodman, who became a vital contributor during the second part of the season, will be vying for more minutes.
And that isn’t all. One of Penn’s most talented players is 6-5 freshman point guard Jelani Williams, who didn’t play this year after recovering from an anterior cruciate ligament injury suffered in high school at Sidwell Friends in Washington.
“Jelani Williams is very talented and had a number of scholarship offers, and we think he is going to be a very good player for us,” Donahue said.
Donahue is also high on Eddie Scott, a 6-6 freshman, who appeared in nine games before a season-ending wrist injury. He averaged two points per game but had 21 points and 13 rebounds in a 101-96 four-overtime win at Monmouth.
Donahue says the coaching staff likes the potential of 6-8 freshman Jarrod Simmons, who averaged 6.1 minutes in 24 appearances. He is an energy-type player.
The Quakers have recruited 6-10 Michael Wang, who was born in China and attends Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif.
“I think we will be deeper next year,” Donahue said.
Despite his optimism, Donahue realizes many other Ivy contenders have a similar profile as Penn – young and talented. All one has to do is look at the first and second-team all-Ivy selections to see the point that Donahue is making.
There wasn’t a single senior on either of the teams, consisting of five first-team picks and seven second-team selections.
Four of the five first-team players were sophomores.
“The league is really good and everybody has great players coming back,” Donahue said.
Harvard is at the top of that list. Crimson sophomore forward Seth Towns was the Ivy League player of the year. Sophomore center Chris Lewis joined Towns on the all-Ivy first team.
Second-leading scorer Bryce Aiken, also a sophomore, missed the second half of the season with a knee injury.
Guard Justin Bassey, who scored a team-high 19 points in Harvard’s 67-60 double-overtime loss to Marquette in the NIT, is also a sophomore.
Starting guard Christian Juzang is a sophomore.
It wouldn’t be surprising if Harvard is the preseason Ivy pick.
So even though there is justified optimism at Penn, a return trip to the NCAA can’t taken for granted due to the talent that Harvard and others in the Ivy League have returning.
One thing is indisputable: Penn will enter next season with a well-deserved higher profile.