The college basketball season tips off on Friday. Penn State will open on Saturday against VMI, now coached by a Nittany Lion great, Dan Earl. Yes, Penn State basketball legends do exist, few and far between they are. Earl was the starting point guard during one of the most fruitful eras in program history - in an injury-ridden career that spanned from 1993-1999 thanks to NCAA waivers, Earl lead PSU to two 20-win seasons and 73 victories in total under both Bruce Parkhill and Jerry Dunn.
Hailing from Medford Lakes, NJ, Earl remains as the only Parade All-American to ever suit up in Blue and White. Obviously Parade isn't the defining voice of high school basketball in the current age of recruiting websites and all-star games, but it's safe to say Penn State hasn't signed an all-American recruit since Earl. This is a problem if your program is trying to compete with the schools that do bring in these heralded recruits, because as in all sports - talent, above everything else, is the most sure predictor of success.
Can you win without talent? Sure, but it's neither effortless or sustainable, save for a few notable cases. Bo Ryan and John Beilein, for example, are both basketball wizards who turn leftovers into Michelin star-worthy entrees. But the only thing in college basketball that's more rare than a talented player is a coach who can win without them. So what's the next best thing? A coach who can get those players.
The jury is still out on Pat Chambers as a Big Ten coach. One winning season in four years and no major postseason appearances is usually enough to get a guy fired at a high-major program, but Penn State is not most programs. Athletic director Sandy Barbour, who did not hire Chambers, gave her coach a two-year contract extension in March after the Lions' mini-run at the B1G Tournament. That gesture of support was step two in landing the best recruiting class in school history.
Step one began years ago. When Chambers took over in June 2011, nobody in the Philadelphia basketball scene knew Penn State existed. He spent years building the relationships with AAU coaches and (gasp!) handlers that PSU never had under Ed DeChellis, which essentially means that until Chambers' arrival the top players in the state never even considered State College as a possible destination. So all Pat had to do was to convince parents and coaches who had existing relationships with the Jay Wrights, the Fran Dunphys and the Jim Boeheims of the world that Penn State was actually the best fit for their child. And he's done just that, while managing to set up a similar shop in the D.C/Baltimore area at the same time.
That hard work has really culminated in the 2016 recruiting class. Oak Hill's Joe Hampton, formerly of DeMatha Catholic in Maryland, got the ball rolling with a commitment in August 2014. (He decommitted and re-committed along the way, because nothing about Penn State basketball is ever straightforward). A 6'8" power forward with range, Hampton is not Chambers' first recruit from the storied Oak Hill Academy, which alone should tell you something about what he's accomplishing.
Nazeer Bostick was actually the first in the class to receive an offer from Chambers. Bostick earned his as a sophomore teammate of current PSU freshman Mike Watkins at Philadelphia's Math, Civics and Sciences HS in October 2013. Bostick transferred to historic Philly school Roman Catholic HS and won a Catholic League and state title in 2015, where his physical style of play from the backcourt earned him the nickname "Horse." He committed in April, and stated his intent to bring his friends with him. His friends are pretty good.
Bostick and Hampton alone would represent another good 2016 class for Chambers. Bostick's aforementioned friends, Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens, bring it to another level. There are a lot of different angles at which to look at their commitments, and BSD will provide in-depth looks at their stories once they are officially members of the class, but let's keep this simple: Carr and Stevens, both top-100 recruits, had offers to play together at Indiana, Maryland, Pitt, Temple and Xavier. They both chose Penn State. Carr, a 6'4" point guard with incredible vision, committed in August. Stevens, a powerhouse wing, pulled the trigger shortly after a September visit to University Park for the Army football game. They'll team up with Bostick at Roman Catholic as the favorites to win the state title once again. There are high hopes for these two especially, and their trailblazing attitudes are at the forefront of reasons why.
Joe Hampton, Nazeer Bostick, Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens are all signing their national letters of intent today, which means that they will be Nittany Lions come next fall. Together they make up a recruiting class that is ranked 6th in the nation by ESPN, one spot ahead of seventh-ranked Kentucky.
(At least for now, until John Calipari gets a commitment from De'Aaron Fox on Thursday. But, c'mon, just enjoy this.)
When this quartet signs on the dotted line today, they will definitively form the best recruiting class in Penn State history. The previous class held that title for one measly year, but the good news for 2015ers Mike Watkins, Josh Reaves and Davis Zemgulis is that they'll get to play with those guys, helping to form the most talented roster that the Bryce Jordan Center has ever seen, at least on paper.
Of course, it's not a guarantee that Penn State will be good. Nothing in college sports is ever guaranteed. But just like that, in a span of two years, Chambers has stacked the deck in his favor with a talented group that will minimize the negative impact any coaching miscues, injuries, or bad referees can have on his team. Strategy is for underdogs. Penn State basketball might not be the underdog for much longer.