Donahue Winning With Defense At Penn

While Dartmouth had been extremely competitive in Ivy League play, it was still somewhat surprising to see the winless Big Green leading Penn by four heading to the final media time out Friday night at Leede Arena.

A hoop or two in the next couple of possessions could finally give Dartmouth its first league win and give it fleeting hope at least of the beginnings of an improbable run to its first Ivy League Tournament. After all, Penn had started 0-6 last year and pulled it off.

With the shot clock running down, Dartmouth went inside to Chris Knight, who was stymied by Max Rothschild into a missed shot. Next time down, it was Taylor Johnson with a heavily contested shot and miss. Brendan Barry tried to drive next, but he was met by Rothschild and others at the rim. The next two times with the ball featured Knight as the shot clock expired, but no success either time. Finally, Barry tried a contested three-pointer that missed.

Six possessions. Zero offensive rebounds. Zero points.

By then, Penn had a 59-55 advantage and was able to hold on for a 64-61 victory, its seventh straight to begin Ivy play. The Quakers already have their most conference wins since 2011-12, and are chasing their first regular season title in 11 years. Penn allowed over 1.00 point per possession in its Ivy opener to Princeton, but has done so only once since, a 95-90 overtime win at The Palestra over Brown.

The Quakers currently check in at 0.931 ppp on defense, tops (yes, ahead of Harvard) in Ivy play, allowing them to be fourth at the other end (1.038 ppp) and still lead in the standings.

Penn has won with defense before, in fact its current 34th rank nationally in adjusted defense is the exact same it finished with in 2005-06 when it last won the Ivy. But that team had the likes of Ibby Jaaber and perhaps more importantly was led by Fran Dunphy, whose teams have finished in the top 100 of adjusted defense nationally in 13 of 16 KenPom era seasons (his Temple team is currently 85th).

Steve Donahue is perhaps not quite the Ivy League legend Dunphy is, but he’s close. Three straight titles and a Sweet 16 appearance at Cornell will do that for you. But Donahue has never had a team finish in the top 100 nationally on defense. His 2009-10 team that finished 29-5 and blitzed Dunphy and Temple (then third nationally in defense) and Wisconsin (19th) in the NCAA Tournament was an offensive juggernaut the Ivy may never see again, finishing ninth in offense, third in eFG% (56.6%), and no one was better from behind the three-point line (43.3%).

Cornell was in the top 100 in the two years prior as well, and Donahue – with a deserved reputation as one of the best offensive coaches in the nation – actually finished 14th, 54th, and 32nd in three of his four years at Boston College, but was fired after three straight losing seasons anyway.

“I think people forget that when we were starting to turn it around at Cornell, we were the No. 1 defensive team in the Ivy for about five years (fact check: Cornell was in the top three in Ivy defense in Donahue’s final five years in Ithaca, but led the Ivy only once, in 2008-09),” Donahue said. “Then we brought in a totally different class that took us to another level and I think the culture changed. My reputation is as an offensive coach, but part of what I learned at Boston College probably, is that you have to defend. These (Penn) kids are built to defend. They love defending. We’ll keep trying to figure out a way to get better offensively.”

Rothschild, particularly, has been a bit of a revelation this season, averaging just 8.5 points per game, but being athletic enough at 6’8” alongside A.J. Brodeur to be a rim protector and athletic enough to defend multiple positions. Senior Darnell Foreman is a veteran presence who brings stability and leadership, and even though Antonio Woods went scoreless in 30 minutes Friday, he defends the ball very well. Ryan Betley is Penn’s leading scorer (14.6 ppg), but is also long enough to defend small forwards.

Donahue is also unafraid to go to his bench. With Caleb Wood struggling from the field, Jake Silpe, who played little last weekend, filled the void with nine points, all on three-pointers. Unlike at Cornell (or Boston College), Donahue rarely plays anything but man-to-man (he didn’t change Friday). No 1-3-1. No matchup zones. Just good, hard man-to-man defense. And, needless to say, it has worked thus far, as Penn stands 25th nationally in eFG% defense (46.6%), eighth three-point defense (30.5%), and ninth in defensive rebounding (77.2%), despite giving up 10 in the first half Friday (Dartmouth got just two after halftime). Opponents have assisted on just 37.9% of their field goals, which is the lowest in the country.

“I’m so proud of our grit and toughness,” Donahue said. “It’s kind of been the way we’ve won this year. We guard you. We do enough on offense. Tonight, we had our best shooter (Caleb Wood) go 0-6 from three, nothing went right, and the kids figured out a way.”

Game on from Hanover! Chris Knight is back. #TMMLegacy

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In just his third season, it’s possible Donahue is still shaping his Penn program and that the Quakers of the future will return to the ways of his great shooting unstoppable offensive juggernaut Cornell squads on the way to dominating the Ivy League. But maybe it’s also true that Donahue is just a great basketball coach who can adjust to what he has (even though it didn’t work out for him at Boston College) and be successful in whichever way suits the personnel he has best. Or maybe it’s both.

For now, Donahue and Penn – who have now won 13 of their last 15 regular season Ivy League games dating back to last season and have virtually clinched a second straight conference tournament berth – will put their focus on an old-school goal: returning the regular season Ivy crown to The Palestra.

“I still think hanging a banner as the Ivy League champion is the mission always,” Donahue said. “Once we achieve that, then we can talk about a tournament. Other than that, I just want to figure out how to win the next game. I haven’t even thought about the Ivy tournament yet. Last year, I had to because of where we were in the standings.”


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