It was a Philadelphia coup that Penn State had never pulled off.
Had it been football and three of the top players in Philadelphia had committed to play in Happy Valley, few would’ve blinked eyes.
This, however, was basketball — a sport in which Penn State had never been able to put a firm claim on the wealth of talent annually produced in the biggest city in the commonwealth.
Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers knew all about “Philly Hoops.” He grew up in Newtown Square and played point guard at Philadelphia University. When Chambers took over the program at Penn State in 2011, he knew he had to go to Philadelphia. It wasn’t for cheesesteaks or scrapple.
“Penn State has tried recruiting Philadelphia,” Chambers said when he was hired. “It’s a bear. You gotta go up against Temple, Villanova, St. Joe’s, the whole Big 5.
“But hopefully we have those relationships in place to make it happen. Y’ know, football can do it; all the other [PSU] sports can do it. Why can’t we do it?”
Chambers and his staff did exactly that.
On Thursday, when seventh-seeded Penn State plays 10th seed Northwestern at Madison Square Garden in the Big Ten tournament, the Nits (19-12, 9-9 in Big Ten) will likely start three graduates from Roman Catholic High School: senior Shep Garner and sophomores Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens. Sophomore Mike Watkins, who graduated from the Phelps School in Chester County, is the fourth starter from Philly.
A fourth Roman Catholic graduate, sophomore Nazeer Bostick, is sixth in minutes played, and graduate student Julian Moore out of Germantown Academy contributes 10 minutes a game.
Carr (19.6 ppg.) led the Big Ten in scoring this season and became the first Nittany Lion to be named first-team all-conference by the coaches and media since 2009.
Stevens and Watkins, who became the school’s first sophomore to record 500 career rebounds, were named honorable-mention all-Big Ten. Watkins also made the Big Ten all-defensive team.
The “Philly Connection,” however, didn’t go to Penn State for individual accolades. It was about helping to create a winning legacy for Nittany Lions basketball.
If Penn State beats Northwestern, it will post just its third 20-win season of the century. A run to the Big Ten championship game might be enough to put the Lions on the bubble for an NCAA at-large bid.
The last time Penn State made the NCAA Tournament, in 2011, it had a similar overall record, finished .500 in the Big Ten and advanced to the conference championship game.
“New season, a fresh start,” Chambers said. “Everybody is 0-0. Let’s continue that process of getting better.
“Let’s get that 1 percent better take of the 200 minutes. We’re still led by sophomores. Every experience is going to help these kids as we continue to grow, as we continue to learn. We’re good; let’s keep getting better. We’ve proved over that last few months we can compete in this league.”