AJ Brodeur is thinking about Corporate Finance.
Penn's second-leading scorer smiles as he sits in a cramped Penn locker room the day before the biggest game of his life. The 6-foot-8 forward is one of his team's biggest reasons for hope as it enters Thursday’s 1 p.m. NCAA Tournament game against the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks ... yet he readily admits his attention is divided.
“I actually have an assignment due tomorrow, so I’ve got to get back to the hotel tonight and get that finished up before the game,” Brodeur said with a laugh. “Got a couple of things on my mind besides just Kansas.”
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The eight-team conference still does not award athletic scholarships. League games also are played on Friday-Saturday schedules each week so players have more time to focus on academic responsibilities.
Still, Brodeur wants something to be clear for those watching Penn for the first time.
“That’s one of the main misconceptions that I think that people have with our league, that we’re all just brainiacs. That we’re all just looking forward to getting back to the library to study after the game,” Brodeur said. “We put in a lot of work. We pride ourselves on how hard we work every play.”
The Quakers will get a chance to display that to a national audience Thursday, though they also can’t escape from the reality of the situation.
Penn, if it pulls off the greatest upset in college basketball history, won’t do it by out-athleting Kansas.
Instead, it’ll be buoyed by a smart game plan that helped the team to a 24-8 record thus far.
Penn's staff has not only studied the analytics of basketball, but it also harps on those numbers in practice each day. Coach Steve Donahue also does more than talk shot selection; he gives the data behind his beliefs so players can buy in more completely.
“Obviously, Ivy League, it is cliché, but we definitely play to the numbers," leading scorer Ryan Betley said.
That starts with the most fundamental of basketball wisdom: The midrange shot is bad for offense.
There already has been a lot of talk about Penn’s three-point defense, and for good reason. The Quakers are one of the best teams nationally at limiting three-point attempts, rarely helping off on shooters while also limiting transition and second-chances — two other situations where teams often get open threes.
But this all is a subset of the most important mission: Avoid the midrange shot on offense, and force the midrange shot on defense.
“That, statistically, is one of the most inefficient shots in basketball,” Brodeur said. “If we can get our opponents to do more of that — and less catch-and-shoot threes, less contested layups, stuff like that where we might foul — that’s where we put ourselves in the best position to succeed.”
Few teams emphasize this as much as Penn. In fact, according to advanced metrics from Frank Dehel at DribbleHandoff.com, Penn’s offense ranks first out of the 68 NCAA Tournament teams when it comes to percentage of twos that come in the paint (as opposed to midrange), and seventh-best defensively when it comes to forcing midrange attempts on twos.
“That’s been our main philosophy all year,” Brodeur said, “and we’d be foolish to try to stray from that for a game like this.”
Offensively, Penn will have to do more than get good shots. It’ll also have to make them, which hasn’t always happened consistently this season.
The good news for the Quakers is they don’t have to play the Jayhawks in a seven-game series; instead, they only have to go against them for 40 minutes in one afternoon.
And in that small of a sample, Penn could conceivably shoot above its 35-percent average from the outside, simply based on luck.
“If we make open shots, which has been our Achilles’ heel, whether that’s threes, foul shots or layups,” Donahue said, “if we can do that well, I think we have a chance.”
Brodeur already has been awed by his first experience of the NCAA Tournament.
He flew on a chartered plane for the first time on the team’s trip to Wichita. At the hotel, the team was greeted by a local pep band, and thousands of people showed up early Wednesday to watch the Quakers’ open practice.
“It just makes me embrace this moment more and more,” Brodeur said, “because how lucky I feel like we are.”
If Penn sticks with KU on Thursday, just know that there will be more than good fortune involved. It’ll also be a team trying to exploit statistical advantages in hopes of taking down a heavy favorite.
“Anything can happen,” Brodeur said. “We’re looking forward to enjoying that moment on the court."