Point Guard Brunch Summary 01.17.18–Dick Jerardi
During my early years as the radio analyst for Penn State basketball, I would constantly get asked the same question: Why has the program never had any sustained success? I certainly did not have all the answers because I did not have the proper big picture context yet. What I did know was that unlike most major state universities, Penn State had never been the destination point for the best players in its state which made it difficult to compete with universities like Indiana, Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Illinois where there was a tradition of the top players in state staying in state.
Pennsylvania is unique in that almost all of the best players are concentrated in and around Philadelphia which just happens to have six programs that play Division I basketball, many with traditions of success that span generations. I told them if Penn State could ever establish a recruiting base in Philadelphia, the program would have a chance to compete in the Big Ten and beyond. And not just for a season here and there, but every season.
When Patrick Chambers, the head coach at Boston University and before that the top assistant on Villanova’s 2009 Final Four team, was hired as the Penn State head coach in the summer of 2011; that was the vision. On Jan. 9, 2018, Penn State played at Indiana and its starting five were all from Philadelphia.
It was not a straight line from the first days until that night. It never is. Chambers’ first Penn State game was on Nov. 12, 2011, at the end of most emotional week in university history. Just before Penn State played Hartford at the Jordan Center, the football team played Nebraska across the street at Beaver Stadium, its first game without Joe Paterno as head coach since 1966.
Trying to recruit in those early years was beyond difficult. Coaches wearing Penn State gear in those first few summers drew accusing stares.
Still, Chambers and his staff kept working toward their goal. That first season, without four senior starters from the season before including Talor Battle, the leading scorer in school history, Tim Frazier, playing for an old point guard turned coach, had perhaps the greatest single season in Penn State history, being named first team all Big Ten on a team that won just 11 games, setting the school record for assists on a team with no shooting.
The second season, Frazier was going to team up with D. J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall to form a powerhouse three-guard combination _ until Frazier tore his Achilles in the fourth game of the season.
Frazier, still recovering from the injury, was not the same player the following season. But he learned enough and eventually recovered enough to become an NBA player. That summer, the hard recruiting work and the relationships Chambers and his staff had established with Philadelphia high school and AAU coaches; began to pay off when Roman Catholic’s Shep Garner announced he was coming to Penn State. The following year, super athletic Philly big man Mike Watkins committed to Penn State.
In Chambers’ fourth season, Penn State, with Newbill and Garner as the leading scorers, won two Big Ten Tournament games for just the fourth time in school history. Nazeer Bostick, Tony Carr and Lamar Stephens, all from Pennsylvania powerhouse and eventual two-time state champion Roman Catholic, announced they would be playing at Penn State. The vision had been realized.
Watkins, Carr and Stephens especially could have gone just about anywhere. They chose Penn State.
So, there they were at Indiana –senior Garner and sophomores Watkins (who took a redshirt), Carr, Stephens and Bostick.
Garner was leading the Big Ten in three pointers made. Carr was near the leaders in scoring and three-point percentage. Watkins, right at the top in blocks, rebounds and shooting percentage, was improving weekly and dramatically. Stephens was a matchup nightmare. Bostick was playing with passion. Josh Reaves, from national power Oak Hill, was leading the conference in steals.
After 20 games, just two teams in the Big Ten had a chance to win every game at the final media timeout _ No. 3 ranked Purdue and Penn State. Only one Penn State team this century had more double-digit wins than this group’s 11 and it took the 2009 NIT champions 35 games to get to 12 wins by 10 points or more.
The good teams don’t necessarily win close games. They win games that are not close. This Penn State team dominated Pittsburgh, George Washington, George Mason and Northwestern, among others, with their athleticism and defense, a rare combination of the ability to create turnovers with their speed and block shots at the rim with their size.
With sophomores playing such prominent roles, it is perfect yet? Nope. Is it frustrating when some games are right there and the result is not? Absolutely.
But given where it was when Chambers coached his first game to where it is now, there is no comparison, not to his early teams, not to any Penn State teams ever really. They now have the talent to compete with every team in the Big Ten, just about any team in the country. And the recruiting class on the way for next season is every bit as good as the one that included Carr, Stephens and Bostick.
Right now is as close as Penn State basketball has ever been to a Big Ten and national breakthrough that can be sustained. It is instructive to remember that Villanova, a school with a basketball tradition that is the envy of many schools, including Penn State, went 15-16 in Jay Wright’s second season as head coach and 13-19 in his 11th season.
Villanova is the Penn State model, but they didn’t begin to win really big until Wright’s excellent recruiting classes became juniors and seniors. Now, the success builds upon itself season after season. That was the plan when Chambers first got the Penn State job. That is still the plan. Only now, the players on the floor are bringing the plan to life. And the players on the way are coming to sustain it.