AJ Brodeur has an interesting way of looking at the Penn basketball program.
Even though the Quakers haven’t been to the NCAA Tournament since he was in elementary school, the sophomore forward doesn’t consider the last decade of struggles the norm.
Instead, he believes Penn has always been the dominant program that’s captured 13 Big 5 titles and 25 Ivy League championships — but none since 2007.
“It’s more getting back to our roots,” Brodeur said after the Quakers improved to 13-6 with a 67-56 win over St. Joe’s Saturday night (see observations). “Penn is obviously a very successful program in our history. Every program is not gonna be perfect forever. There are ups and downs and hopefully, we’re on the upswing now.”
Thanks in large part to Brodeur, the Quakers are most certainly on the rise. Consider: the 13 victories they’ve amassed to this point would have matched or surpassed their win total for an entire season in all but one campaign since 2006-2007.
And after handling the Hawks in their final non-conference game of the season, the Quakers enter the bulk of their league slate as a legitimate favorite to return to the top of the Ivy League after 11 years of looking up at the league champ.
“I have a great vision for this program,” said third-year head coach Steve Donahue, “and what I think we can do at Penn.”
Few people know better than Donahue the heights that Penn can reach. He was a Quakers assistant throughout the 1990s when Penn won five Ivy titles and its last NCAA Tournament game (in 1994, over Nebraska). And later, as head coach of Cornell, he showed again what an Ivy team can do on the national stage, taking the Big Red to the 2010 Sweet 16.
Back in those days too, the Quakers were far more competitive in the Big 5, winning three city series titles in the 1990s and enjoying a perfect run through the city in 2001-02.
And so, avoiding a winless Big 5 season with Saturday’s impressive showing vs. St. Joe’s was both a relief and a timely confidence boost, especially after last Saturday’s loss to Temple at an equally crowded Palestra.
“There are not many places in college basketball you can play a non-league game in front of 9,000 fans,” Donahue said. “This just doesn’t happen.”
The fans were certainly out in full force Saturday night, filling the corners of the old gym with St. Joe’s students and Penn students occupying opposite sides.
But Hawks fans had little to cheer about in the end as St. Joe’s struggled to hit shots when it mattered, shooting 30.9 percent from the field and 25 percent from three-point range for the game.
“We struggled this week on offense,” longtime St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli said. “It’s a struggle. I think for the first time Thursday I could feel the team felt sorry for themselves. We put everything into Wednesday night and couldn’t get their spirit lifted.”
Wednesday night was when the Hawks let the chance of an upset slip away in the final minute at St. Bonaventure, one of the top teams in the Atlantic 10. Returning to Philly and preparing on short rest for Penn — without injured stars, Lamarr Kimble and Charlie Brown — was no easy task.
“Rest was a big part of this game,” Donahue said. “They don’t have great depth and we have depth. And we’re sitting here all week getting ready for this game.”
Penn’s depth and balance were certainly on display Saturday. Even with seven players in street clothes, the Quakers still managed to dress 14 players, with eight different ones scoring.
And it was no surprise Brodeur led the way with 13 points and 11 rebounds, including two offensive boards on one second-half possession that led to a critical three-pointer from fellow sophomore Ryan Betley (10 points).
“Villanova has most of the best players in the city but if there was a pickup game, Brodeur is getting picked,” Martelli said. “And that’s not true of everybody. All of us aren’t getting a guy picked but they would get him picked.”
While Brodeur and Betley give the Quakers a nice offensive tandem, Donahue was most proud of the team’s defense — both on Saturday, as they held the Hawks to 56 points, and throughout the season.
He pointed to a few impressive defensive stats, including the fact Penn has given up the fewest amount of assists in the country. The Quakers are also 21st in three-point field goal defense and 10th in defensive rebounds per game.
“Now we’re trying to get better on offense,” the Penn coach said. “We had open looks but we’re not there yet on that part. We’re trying to figure out the best answer for us on offense.”
One of those answers on offense, he hopes, is junior point guard Jake Silpe, who’s been given important minutes over the last two games after playing only 35 total minutes in the previous 17 contests. Another could be sharpshooter Sam Jones, who hit a three Saturday for his first points in a month.
Whatever the case is, though, it’s become clear Penn finally has the horses to once again be both a serious player in the Ivy League and, of course, the city.
“We’re definitely a different team from last year,” Brodeur said. “You can see how gritty you have to be to pull out Big 5 wins in front of a packed Palestra. They’re our most attended games we have all season, and we’re poised on the big stage and performing well.”