“I love what’s happening with our basketball program. We’ll be good forever now unless we get sloppy.”
— Joe Paterno, 1996
In 1996, Penn State opened 6-1 in the Big 10. The Nittany Lions were 15-1 overall, ranked No. 10 in the country.
The team was crisp, well-drilled, fun to watch. The brand new Bryce Jordan Center, opened for the league season, was routinely packed.
As January came to a close, the Nittany Lions had just routed a Bob Knight Indiana team 82-68, were ranked second in the Big 10 in scoring, first in scoring defense, first in three-point shooting offense and first in three-point defense.
Sportswriters marveling at Penn State’s sudden appearance on the national scene liked to point out that the Lions had no “Dickie V ‘Diaper Dandies’ ” on the roster.
No Diaper Dandies? Maybe not. But not the 1954 Milan Indians*, either. The core Nittany Lions were highly regarded recruits:
- Dan Earl – Parade All America fourth team.
- Pete Lisicky – a top-50ish national recruit, won a three point shooting contest at the elite, invitation-only Nike camp
- Calvin Booth – top 100ish recruit by Bob Gibbons
- Glenn Sekunda – former New Jersey HS player of the year
- Matt Gaudio – former West Virginia high school player of the year
Highly-rated recruits. Well-coached. Stayed healthy (until that point at least – Dan Earl’s back and knee troubles were to come later). No school problems – good students all.
Joe Paterno saw a strong foundation in 1996, when he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ron Cook “I love what’s happening with our basketball program. We’ll be good forever now unless we get sloppy.”
What we were seeing turned out to be something else – a perfect storm.
And it was the high point.
In the twenty years since, Penn State has cobbled together a handful of good squads, but they were all assembled from overachievers and the overlooked. Not a recipe for Big 10 success.
That’s why what has just happened – the commitment from Philadelphia PG Tony Carr – is a big deal.
For the first time since the early years of Big 10 play, Penn State is assembling a team from recruits that other people really wanted:
- Tony Carr – 53 composite ranking on 247, as high as 38 (Scout)
- Mike Watkins – 97
- Josh Reaves – 102
- Shep Garner – 173
- Joe Hampton – 182
- Nazeer Bostick – 240 (247 ranking)
And very much still on the board with two scholarships to give:
- Lamar Stevens – 77
- Dylan Painter – 254
That’s similar to what was assembled back in the mid-1990s. You can win with a group like that, even in the talent-laden Big 10.
But remember, on its way to No. 10, that 1995-96 team:
- Stayed healthy
- Responded well to coaching
- Adjusted well to school
And even if these guys get close to their potential, remember that contrary to Joe Paterno’s prediction, Penn State wasn’t good forever after the last time it happened.
The Big 10 is a tough place to win. Delgreco Wilson, a truth-telling Philadelphian who follows this stuff as close as anybody, responded when an Internet commenter wrote “Penn State looking nice” with “If they were still in the A10….”
“They can’t crack the top 8 in the Big 10 with their roster and recruits… “ he wrote. “They are hurting Temple, SJU, LaSalle and Drexel… They aren’t gaining on the better Big 10 programs.”
Even if Wilson meant “passing the better Big 10 programs” – surely Penn State was finally gaining on them with Reaves and Watkins – we take the point. Penn State is batting .300 in its 23 seasons in the Big 10. Three .500 seasons and only two winning seasons.
Wilson wrote that before Carr committed. And Carr makes a difference: “Now, they beat out Maryland and Indiana for Carr (assuming he commits)… That is IMPRESSIVE!!”
A college coach (can’t remember who) once said that the hardest thing in all of sports was to move up in class in college sports. Look at the football and basketball top 25 from 25 years ago and look at today’s and you’ll see the same names.
Chambers’ recruiting hasn’t pushed Penn State into the Big 10’s upper echelon (which, by the way, would put it among the country’s top programs). But Chambers is finally winning recruiting wars against Penn State’s peers, and some teams Penn State is looking up at.
He’s doing it without luck (Jerry Sandusky anyone?) and after inheriting an empty cupboard and a full roster, and not a lot of Big 10 wins yet.
Make no mistake – that’s extremely difficult, and an incredible accomplishment.
* Nor the fictional 1951 Hickory Huskers.