Basketball Scouting Report: Pennsylvania

The Vanderbilt Commodores had to do one thing against Georgia Tech: rebound the Yellow Jackets’ missed shots. They couldn’t do so, and they paid a very steep price. VU has to… rebound from that performance against Pennsylvania on Monday night.


On a Saturday afternoon when Vanderbilt failed to beat a mediocre power-conference team away from home, the Commodores were reminded of the immensity of their failure in another non-conference game from the past month. Saturday, Rutgers lost at home to St. Francis (Pa.), reminding VU that when it lost to the Scarlet Knights at the Barclays Center Classic, it really fell short of expectations.

Vanderbilt shouldn’t be held to an unreasonably high standard, such as beating Virginia… the team it would have faced had it defeated Rutgers in Brooklyn on Thanksgiving weekend. However, beating Rutgers and Georgia Tech – even if away from Memorial Gym – should be accomplished. With those two losses, balanced against an absence of huge wins, Vanderbilt has already played itself out of prime at-large consideration for the NCAA tournament. It must beat that team in Lexington with 75 really tall and skilled players (okay, the number is exaggerated; you get the point) to begin to work its way back into the at-large picture. It needs to be able to gain something of value in the coming weeks, and avoiding a loss to Penn offers a start in that regard.

PENNSYLVANIA AT-A-GLANCE

The Quakers used to be a team you could count on to make the NCAA tournament in two out of every three seasons. From 1993 through 2007, a span of 15 seasons, Penn made 10 NCAA tournament appearances, nine of them under the architect of the program, Fran Dunphy. However, as soon as Dunphy left to become the coach at Temple, things slid downhill. Glen Miller coached the team to the 2007 tournament (the tenth appearance in that 15-season span), and after that, a dry spell has hit the protectors of The Palestra, one of the great and unique venues in all of college basketball. Current coach Jerome Allen has been on the job in 2009, and the Princeton-Harvard axis of power has proven to be far too strong for the Quakers. It is worth reminding you that the Ivy League still lacks a conference tournament – the league’s automatic berth for the NCAA tournament is based on regular season conference performance. Penn used to be the team that would usually withstand everyone else’s best shot in the Ivy League, but that time has passed.

Early indications this season point to another long and difficult campaign in Philadelphia. The Quakers are 3-5, and they have not played high-caliber opponents, for the most part. The team’s best loss came to Dunphy’s Temple club, and none of the wins on the slate are going to move the needle. The Quakers enter Monday’s game with an RPI in the 300s. This is not something one could have easily imagined about Penn basketball seven years ago.

Starting Lineup

Center – Darien Nelson-Henry –
Junior, 6-11, 265 2014-15: 10.4 points per game, 7.2 rebounds per game

As is the case with everyone else on the Penn roster, current stats need to be perceived in light of the fact that the Quakers have not played robust opposition this season. Nelson-Henry, for instance, grabbed nine rebounds in Penn’s most recent game on Dec. 9. That game was against Marist, a team that’s 1-8 and at the very bottom of the college basketball pecking order, even lower than Penn. The stats might say Nelson-Henry is a “seven-rebounds-per-game” player, but against what level of competition?

Forward – Greg Louis – Senior, 6-7, 215; 2014-15: 6.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg

This is where Vanderbilt will need to pay attention to the changes that have occurred on the Penn roster over the course of the season. Louis’s numbers are not that special. However, he is not the best forward on his team. That distinction belongs to teammate Mike Auger, a freshman who played well for Penn early in the season but suffered an injury that has kept him out of action for Penn’s previous two weeks of competition. With nearly two weeks off before this game, Auger might be able to give it a go and play. If Auger does play, he averages 9.3 points and 6.7 rebounds. He stands at 6-7 and 225 pounds, but unlike Louis, he’s an underclassman, specifically a freshman. His energy on the glass is something Vanderbilt would need to watch out for.

Guard – Tony Hicks – Junior, 6-2, 170; 2014-15: 14.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.8 apg

This is Penn’s best player by a wide margin, and yet Hicks was just 1-of-8 from the field against Marist on Dec. 9. Hicks hits 36.6 percent of his threes, so Vanderbilt needs to close down his shooting hand. He’s also the best distributor of the ball on his team, so it is important that VU can contain him in man-to-man defense – sending an extra body to make him give up the ball would only create the possibility that he can get a great shot for one of his teammates.

Guard – Matt Howard – Sophomore, 6-4, 185; 2014-15: 8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.5 apg

Not to be confused with former Butler basketball star Matt Howard, this version provides modest production from his off-guard spot. He does rebound fairly well for his size, but he’s not giving Allen the scoring punch that’s needed to make Penn a more formidable team. Penn’s ability to find a second wing scorer is essential to a successful Ivy League season for the Quakers.

Guard – Darnell Foreman – Freshman, 6-1, 175; 2014-15: 5.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2 apg

As you look at Penn’s starting five, you’ll notice that there’s only one senior in the group. If there’s any long-term positive about Penn basketball, it’s that this is a young team that will have a chance to develop over the next two to three seasons. If the outlook is bleak for 2014-2015, this team should look better in 2015-2016 and could be really special in 2016-2017. Right now, though, a starter such as Foreman – who did play 30 minutes against Marist – can’t carry these small statistical averages onto the floor. Any credible Division I basketball team has to bring more to the table.

Bench

Keep in mind that if Mike Auger starts, you’ll probably see one of Penn’s three starting guards (Foreman would probably be the best candidate) move to the bench. Beyond that, Allen gave at least 21 minutes to two other reserves against Marist: guard Antonio Woods and forward Sam Jones. (That’s a great basketball name, for those who remember the Red Auerbach-era Boston Celtics.) Woods averages 7.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. Jones also averages 7.3 points per game, coupled with 2.2 boards per contest.

Keys to the Game

1) Forceful man-to-man defense.
Pennsylvania’s scoring options are noticeably limited, which means that nothing less than vigorous man-to-man defense – nothing fancy, just a lot of hard work – should wear down the Quakers. Preventing Hicks from creating easy shots for teammates is a particular defensive priority for VU in this game.

2) Be on alert for Auger. If Mike Auger does play, the composition and quality of this Penn team would change. Penn hasn’t played in the past 13 days, so the team – while dealing with finals – has also had a chance to reassess how it should approach opponents with the adjusted lineup combinations it has used. If Auger is re-integrated into the mix, Penn might play in a way that’s different from what VU might have seen on film from Thanksgiving through Dec. 9. Being prepared for a different – and better – Penn team is a foremost key for Vanderbilt. Kevin Stallings needs to have his players attuned to the possibility that the Quakers will be more effective at both ends of the floor.

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