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College Crosse's Impossibly Early, Definitely Perfect (Sort of), Rock-Solid (Maybe) Fall Ball Top 20: Pennsylvania (13)

The Quakers could be undervalued going into 2014.

The 2014 season is months away. Let's punch fate in the face and make wild assumptions about what could be the best 20 teams in the country next year.

Team: Pennsylvania

Rank: 13

Important People: Maxx Meyer (D); Zack Losco (M); Matt McMahon (D); Brian Feeney (G); Alex Blonsky (LSM); Isaac Bock (A); Drew Belinksy (M)

Formerly Important People: Tim Schwalje (A); Anthony Santomo (D); Ryan Parietti (A)

Final 2013 Poll Positions: Media: 18; Coaches: 19

2013 Record: 8-5 (3-3, Ivy)

2013 Snapshot: Kaboom!

* * * * *

Nightmare Fuel
The Quakers weren't an offensive masterpiece in 2013 -- Pennsylvania ranked 23rd in adjusted offensive efficiency, was one of the most turnover-prone teams in the nation, and struggled mightily at finding the back of the net -- but Penn did get enough out of its offense to create a manageable balance between its efforts at both ends of the field. The steadying force in the Quakers offensive existence last year was Tim Schwalje, an undervalued attack that served as Pennsylvania's quarterback, compass, and "Press in case of emergency" button. His statistical profile isn't a rock star power slide, but it is one that highlights his value to the Quakers offense in totem: A player with an ability to distribute and high carrying and usage rates, much of Penn's offense ran through Schwalje and the results were acceptable. With Schwalje suffering from the incurable disease known as "graduation," where do the Quakers turn on the offensive end? Penn returns a significant number of offensive contributors from 2013, but none -- at least at the moment -- looks like a front man, a cat that controls the stage and keeps everything together. These are spokes without a defined hub. If a binding force does not emerge (or, at a minimum, reliable options that are able to create circumstances that accelerate the whole), the Quakers could be offensively adrift, especially if Penn struggles with managing turnovers as they did last season. This layered issue -- attempting to fill a void while also growing competency in fundamental play (limiting giveaways, developing shooting accuracy, sharing the ball and maturing role responsibilities) -- can be problematic, especially for a program that isn't sneezing first team All-Americans. One player does not make a team, but the loss of one player can create transitional pain (even with offensively-capable options still dotting the roster).

A Thousand White Doves
No team progress more from 2012 to 2013 than Pennsylvania. The Quakers' 24.75 percent improvement in Pythagorean win expectation topped the nation, a solid four percent stronger than Carolina's maturation over the same period. This is the means for optimism in Philadelphia, even in an Ivy League climate where climbing the hierarchy is as difficult as it has ever been. Mike Murphy isn't likely to duplicate the level of growth that the program experienced last season, but there are a lot of factors indicating that Pennsylvania is in a position to at least hold its spot as a top 15-type team:

  • The defense, which ranked first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, loses -- among primary contributors -- only Santomo, a former close defenseman. Other than that, the Quakers are stacked with assets at the defensive end of the field: Meyer, the anchor to the unit, has All-America potential; Feeney is arguably the best stopper in the conference and is a reliable stopper; and McMahon and Blonsky are capable supporting actors, fulfilling their duties with quiet proficiency. Even if Penn struggles offensively, the Quakers can still build from the back and slowly strangle opponents into submission. There is potential here for another exceptional defensive season from Pennsylvania.
  • Even with Schwalje's departure, leverage in offensive responsibility was existent in 2013 and that should serve the Quakers well in 2014. Four of the team's top six point-generators return from a year ago, that foursome responsible for over 50 percent of the team's total points and accounting for almost 44 percent of the team's shots (shooting 32.39 percent as a group, more than eight percent better than the Quakers as a whole). The most notable aspect of these returnees, though, is that they're spread between the attack and the midfield, allowing Pennsylvania to approach its opponents with different looks. The Quakers offense -- if it can sustain itself -- has the parts to properly complement the team's defense.
  • Results even out over time; overachievement and underachievement aren't static realities (at least in some contexts). Pennsylvania, based on expected victories relative to performance metrics, finished with one fewer win in 2013 than they should have generated. If course correction takes hold in 2014, the Quakers could get that game back immediately and set the table for an impressive run in the spring.
This is an exciting time for Penn; if the Quakers can ride their own momentum, big things await on the horizon.

The Stars, The Moon, Six Feet Under
The Stars: Ivy League champions -- either regular season or tournament -- and a trip to the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, the first trip for the Quakers to that stage of the postseason since 1988; defense remains a top-five unit and steals candy without remorse; bags a big kill in the regular season that provides a solid seed for the postseason; dusts Villanova and Drexel in overall strength and sends each a very unthoughtful condolences card.

The Moon: Top two of the Ivy League and a trip to the Ivy League Tournament championship; bubble-in NCAA Tournament team; offense keeps it together and gets its turnovers under control, taking the pressure off the defense to win games; can't seem to beat Princeton but takes care of business against Yale and Cornell; Feeney replaces his helmet with a Ben Franklin cap and holds a 60.0 save percentage.

Six Feet Under: Penn regresses from their growth last year and is mired in the middle of the Ivy League; no big wins and fights every game to gut out victories; offense is rudderless without Schwalje; no tournament of any kind and the Quakers' 10 seniors are left only with regret.