By Dave Zeitlin | Less than 24 hours after having his wisdom teeth removed, Jerome Allen W’09 isn’t showing any signs of wooziness or pain. In fact, the typically reserved Penn men’s basketball coach seems more upbeat than usual as he prepares to discuss the upcoming hoops season.
Perhaps that’s because he’s sitting inside his new office overlooking the team’s recently completed practice court at the renovated Hutchinson Gymnasium, next door to the Palestra. Or because the Quakers had recently returned from a team trip to Italy, where Allen saw his players “locked in” and “really in the moment.” Or maybe it’s because all of his players and assistant coaches are returning—a rare occurrence in the revolving-door world of college athletics.
Whatever the reason, Allen isn’t holding back his excitement for the 2013-14 basketball season, which begins with a Homecoming game against Temple on November 9 at the Palestra. “My expectations are high,” the head coach states. “I like this team.”
There certainly is a lot to like, starting with a pair of senior captains: Miles Cartwright and Fran Dougherty. As juniors last season, both were asked to carry a big load following the graduation of a senior class that included record-breaking point guard Zack Rosen W’12. And even though the team sputtered to a 9-22 overall record and a fifth-place finish in the Ivy League, Cartwright and Dougherty now return as two of the league’s most experienced and talented players.
“I think all of the seniors are really showing a sense of urgency since it’s our last year,” Dougherty says, while sitting on a Shoemaker Green bench outside the Palestra. “We feel like we have so much to accomplish still, and we only have one year left.”
While Cartwright was the team’s anchor throughout the 2011-12 campaign, starting 30 games and finishing fifth in the league in scoring, Dougherty’s season was a microcosm of Penn’s bad luck over the past few years. After serving as a role player during his first two years on the squad, Dougherty got off to a flying start, averaging 15.7 points and 8.8 rebounds over Penn’s first 10 games.
“I put in a lot of hard work in the summer,” he says, “and I knew I was going to shock some people the way I was playing.”
But then came a different kind of shock as the Quakers’ leading scorer learned he had mononucleosis. At first, Dougherty simply thought he had strep throat, and he felt completely healthy just a couple of days later. But the 6-foot-8 forward was forced to miss eight games due to an enlarged spleen, which could have burst with physical contact.
“It was awful,” he recalls. “I felt like I could go out there. I was sitting there in practice like, I think I can do this right now.”
By the time Dougherty returned in early February, the Quakers were an unsightly 3-15. But because they had played just one Ivy League game, there remained a glimmer of hope that they could get their season back on track. Then, more bad luck. In just his second game back, one day after returning to the court, Dougherty dislocated his elbow in a 71-69 loss to Cornell. He would miss the remainder of the season.
“It would have been nice to at least make it through a weekend,” he says now, with a rueful chuckle.
Still, there were a couple of silver linings for the Quakers. With Dougherty sidelined for more than half of the season, 6-foot-11 center Darien Nelson-Henry was able to emerge as one of the league’s top freshmen, averaging 7.6 points and 4.1 rebounds per game.
Now, the most exciting part for Penn fans is that Dougherty and Nelson-Henry are poised to play together this season, making up the core of a frontcourt that also includes returning junior forwards Henry Brooks and Greg Louis. Dougherty says he’s excited to play with Nelson-Henry because “he’s so big and takes up so much space.”
“I think Fran has developed into a player who can score the ball for us, both inside and out, and can definitely pass the ball,” says Allen. “I think those two will play well off one another. I think if they’re operating the way I would like them to, we’ll be pretty tough to beat.”
Nelson-Henry wasn’t the only Penn freshman to take advantage of increased playing-time opportunities last year, as Tony Hicks began to assert himself as one of the league’s most electric guards toward the end of the season. This season, Hicks figures to start in the backcourt along with Cartwright and sophomore point guard Jamal Lewis, although pass-first freshman Tony Bagtas could challenge Lewis for the starting spot. Alternatively, Cartwright or Hicks could handle the bulk of the ballhandling duties and play alongside a swingman like sophomore Julian Harrell (who missed all of last season with an injury) or freshman Matt Howard (one of the team’s most promising incoming recruits).
But for the Quakers to mount a credible campaign for an Ivy title, it will all come back to their five seniors: Dougherty, Cartwright, guards Dau Jok and Steve Rennard, and forward Cameron Gunter. The odds will be stacked against them, considering that Harvard adds senior standouts Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry (both had to withdraw from school last year after an academic cheating scandal) to a team that won last year’s Ivy title (as well as the program’s first NCAA tournament game). But the Quakers have upset Harvard in each of the past two seasons, so they certainly believe they can capture their first league crown since 2007 and end the program’s longest title drought since the 1960s.
“It would be quite the way to go out,” Dougherty says. “This year, we really, really want it. It would be great to bring one back to this university.”