Pat Chambers knew when he took the Penn State head coaching position in 2011 that he faced an uphill climb. He probably didn’t realize he was attacking college basketball’s version of Mount Everest, however.
The Nittany Lions never really sustained success in the past. When they joined the powerful Big Ten in 1993, it was great for the football program but a headache on the hardwood.
Chambers has worked hard to gain traction. He’s produced some excellent players in Tim Frazier, D.J. Newbill and Brandon Taylor, among others, but it just hasn’t come together.
Entering Year 6, however, things might be looking up for Chambers. Penn State welcomes Rivals’ No. 25 recruiting class to campus, joining a solid returning nucleus led by junior Shep Garner and UConn transfer Terrence Samuel. The Nittany Lions recruited Samuel (6-4, 190) out of high school, but he chose the Huskies over offers from Iowa State, Louisville, Villanova, Virginia and others. He sat out last season after averaging 3.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists in two years at UConn.
“Really good group of guys that the staff and I have assembled. Penn State is in a different place today. We’re going to get up and down, which we haven’t done in the last five years. We’re going to play an up-tempo style of play,” Chambers said at Thursday’s Big Ten Media Day in Washington, D.C.
Chambers hit pay dirt in mining talent-rich Philadelphia, landing Roman Catholic High three-star shooting guard Nazeer Bostick, guard Tony Carr (No. 46), and forward Lamar Stevens (96). Carr and Stevens were ranked among the nation’s top 100 players by Rivals. Carr was the highest-rated recruit to choose PSU since Rivals began ranking prospects. Bostick, Carr and Stevens ran together on AAU with Team Final.
Joe Hampton, a power forward from Oak Hill Academy, rounded out the 2016 Class. He chose the Lions ahead of DePaul, Rhode Island, Virginia Tech and Xavier.
Chambers is excited about the group, one that could finally help make Penn State a consistent winner.
“The freshmen are very mature for their age. They have a great approach to class and to study hall and tutors and what we need to do off the floor. And they’re bringing that same approach to the basketball court,” Chambers said.
“Again, they’re freshmen; the jump from high school to the Big Ten, as far as practice is concerned, is a mighty jump. It’s a leap. So consistency is probably number one on the list of bringing it every day, every drill for two hours. They’re doing a really good job, but they still need to continue to work on that. But I’ve been super impressed with how they’re handling their business.”
With the exception of last year’s Senior Day, Garner has started every game he’s played at Penn State . He ranked second on the team in scoring last season (14.8) and led it in steals (1.3) and assists (3.4). He finished among the league’s top 15 in minutes, 3-pointers made, assists, scoring, and free-throw percentage.
The Lions have Payton Banks and Josh Reaves joining Garner as returning starters and add Mike Watkins, a 6-9, 246-pounder from Philly, who redshirted last season.
“What he (Watkins) can bring to us, if he stays out of foul trouble, is incredible athleticism, speed,” Chambers said. “He’s got great IQ for the game. He’s an exceptional passer. He catches everything, he finishes everything. He’s going to protect the rim. It’s a big that the Big Ten hasn’t really seen in a long time with the complement of talents that he has and how he’s going to help this team.”
While guys like Frazier, Newbill and Taylor didn’t experience the levels of success they had hoped for, they can take comfort in knowing they built the foundation for what Chambers believes could be a change in the program’s fortunes.
“I know we’re not happy with 50 and 50 over the last three years, but that shows progress,” Chambers said.
“Those guys, Lamar and Tony, believing in the vision that we have for this program, is really going to set us up for the next couple of years, because we don’t have a senior on the team.”