Preseason NIT preview: Penn/Delaware

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Delaware forward Jamelle Hagins (left) will be a tough matchup problem for Penn on Monday night. (Photo: Mark Jordan)

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

The 2012 NIT Season Tip-Off gets underway on Monday night, with the tournament’s top four seeds–Michigan, Virginia, Kansas State and Pittsburgh–hosting the first and second rounds.

Unlike many of these early-season “exempt” tournaments, where the preliminary games are mostly meaningless as the top teams are guaranteed to advance to the championship round, the Preseason NIT is a true bracket, where any of the 16 teams have a chance to play at Madison Square Garden next week.

Three CoBL teams are playing in this year’s Preseason NIT–Delaware (third appearance), Lehigh (first appearance) and Penn (fourth appearance); none of them have made it to the semifinals or further. Lehigh, the tournament’s fifth-overall seed, is out in the Pittsburgh regional where they take on unseeded Robert Morris in the first round for the right to play either Pitt or Fordham the next night. Penn and eighth-seeded Delaware face off on Monday night at Virginia, with the winner advancing to play the Virginia/Fairfield victor.

We’ll take a closer look at Lehigh/Robert Morris later today, but up first is a look at the Blue Hens and Quakers and what to look for when they clash down in Charlottesville (9:30pm).

Both teams showed a mix of good and bad in their respective openers. Penn (1-0) fell behind by 22 early and were able to rally for a win against Maryland-Baltimore County, a four-win program a year ago; if the Quakers do the same against the Blue Hens, it won’t be as easy to make that comeback. Delaware (0-1) fell in their own early 15-point hole at La Salle but weren’t quite able to claw their way back against a talented Explorers squad.

Penn junior forward Fran Dougherty (white jersey) and company will have a tough task ahead in guarding Hagins. (Photo: Julie Smith)

What La Salle had that Penn lacks is someone to matchup with Jamelle Hagins, Delaware’s bruising 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward was fifth in Division I last year with 11.1 rpg and ninth with 2.97 bpg in addition to his 12.4 ppg. With 801 points and 785 career rebounds heading into the season, 1000 in both categories seems like a certainty. It’s going to be a tall task for Penn’s 6-8 forwards Fran Dougherty and Henry Brooks, as 6-11 freshman center Darien Nelson-Henry is probably going to have a tough time dealing with Hagins’ athleticism and experience at this point so early in his career.

Expect the Blue Hens to go to their big men early and often, posting up Hagins as well as junior St. Joseph’s transfer Carl Baptiste and senior big man Josh Brinkley, who scored 10 points in 14 minutes off the bench in the La Salle loss. The best bet for the Quakers is to try and get the ball to Dougherty and Brooks in space and draw Hagins away from the basket, where he’s most effective, and try to get him in foul trouble. If Hagins can get rolling early and force the Quakers’ big men to foul early, they’re going to have some serious issues keeping the CAA’s best forward under 15 points and 15 rebounds.

The biggest team advantage that Penn has over Delaware is their overall depth. Where the Blue Hens had just seven student-athletes see significant playing time in their opener,  Quakers coach Jerome Allen is still sorting out his rotation from a group of 12, any of whom could break into the rotation at this point in the year. Eight players saw 10-plus minutes in the UMBC victory, and included in the four who didn’t were team co-captain Dau Jok, a very capable jump-shooter, as well as athletic wing Greg Louis, a redshirt freshman who’s returning from surgery to correct a genetic hip problem.

It was sophomore Patrick Lucas-Perry who took advantage of Allen’s liberal substitutions on Friday, scoring 15 points in 17 minutes and adding five steals and a charge on the defensive end of the court, prompting his coach to say they “probably wouldn’t have won” without the 5-10 guard. Miles Cartwright also had a nice game in his first as the expected lead scorer on the team, dropping 21 points on an efficient 6-of-11 from the floor while getting to the line 10 times (making seven).

Penn freshmen Tony Hicks (lef) scored 13 points in his first game–and start–as a Quaker.(Photo: Josh Verlin)

What remains to be seen defensively about Penn is their ability to stop a pair of talented, 6-2 guards like Delaware’s Devon Saddler and Jarvis Threatt, both All-CAA preseason honorees who can both shoot and create. While Cartwright is certainly a talented guard in his own right, Saddler’s a potential 2,000-point scorer who has more points in two seasons as a Blue Hen than any other player in school history; Threatt scored 30 points twice in the final 15 games of last season and might be the better of the two guards by the time things are all said and done. There’s also the matter of dealing with speedy 5-8 point guard Terrell Rogers, a true freshman who played 26 minutes in his collegiate debut and is likely the only guard to come off the Blue Hens’ bench.

Unlike past Penn teams, however, this is a Quakers team that can score. After Cartwright and Lucas-Perry, there’s also freshman guard Tony Hicks, a Chicago native who scored 13 points, hitting 3-of-3 from beyond the arc, and chipped in three assists and three steals (against three turnovers) as the third starting guard in the UMBC opener. Dougherty (nine points, 11 rebounds) is a capable scorer of his own right, while Jok and Simeon Esprit are both good 3-point shooters.

But will that group of young Ivy League guards be enough to keep up with the most talented starting five in the CAA? That should be answered tomorrow night.

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