Confident Bill O'Brien barnstorming for Penn State

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Confident Bill O'Brien barnstorming for Penn State

READING, Pa. -- Bill O'Brien got to the point.

There's no time to waste for a major college football program, even in the offseason -- and especially for a Penn State team facing roster restrictions because of NCAA sanctions.

Whether he was rallying the fan base Monday at a luncheon or explaining to reporters about the post-spring practice evaluations that led to the departure of starting quarterback candidate Steven Bench, O'Brien didn't mince words.

"There's no room for gray area. We don't have time for it," he said at a news conference at the student center of the Penn State-Berks campus in Reading. "We only have time for the truth."

Confident after a successful debut season, O'Brien is returning to the road this week for the Penn State coaches caravan. The second annual installment followed last year's three-week, 18-stop road trip organized in part to introduce O'Brien to Penn State's massive alumni base up and down the mid-Atlantic region.

This year's caravan isn't quite as ambitious, down to two weeks and 12 stops. It began with an appearance before a sold-out crowd of 250 in Reading.

But it's a different O'Brien, too. He enjoys strong support from alumni after guiding the Nittany Lions through the turbulent 2012 season, which included the sanctions on the program for the child sex abuse scandal involving former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky.

Penn State ended 8-4, a smashing success given the unprecedented penalties on players who had nothing to do with the scandal. He thanked fans for sticking by the team.

"I'm more proud to be a Penn State graduate today than at any time since I graduated in 1986," gushed one fan into a microphone during a question-and-answer period while O'Brien awaited queries on a stage.

An appreciative O'Brien focused on looking ahead. Joined on stage by friend and Penn State basketball coach Patrick Chambers, O'Brien often flashed a dry sense of humor.

At other times, O'Brien sounded a defiant tone. He said other schools are questioning to potential recruits whether the team can succeed while under sanctions.

"Our commitment is to forge ahead together. It's no secret that others expect us to be down," O'Brien said. "Recruiting is a cutthroat business. That's just the way it is."

He told alumni Monday that students, including players, needed their support -- whether through donations, attendance at sporting events or otherwise. He spoke of the importance of unity for the sake of students during tough times.

Penn State attendance declined last year. The average attendance of roughly 96,000 left the stadium at about 91 percent capacity, down from the usual 97-98 percent.

He also promised a continued focus on academics.

"When I took the job here, I spoke to (Joe Paterno). I promised him that these guys would be students first and they would earn their degrees to the best of my abilities," O'Brien said to applause. "When it comes to athletics, that is our culture at Penn State, across all 31 teams."

The sanctions require Penn State to reduce its scholarship roster to 65 for a four-year period starting in 2014. Most major college teams have 85 scholarship players.

But the Nittany Lions were already down to nearly 70 by midseason last year after post-sanction player defections -- and still finished second in the Big Ten Leaders Division.

Bench announced last week he was transferring. O'Brien said Monday that freshman offensive lineman Anthony Stanko, who did not play last year, also plans to leave the team but has chosen to stay on scholarship.

The roster shuffling means the Nittany Lions will probably be at the 65-man limit anyway by the time 2013 season kicks off Aug. 31 against Syracuse.

"We have to prove ourselves -- again. And show what we're made of -- again," O'Brien said. "We have a culture of integrity. That is not new at Penn State, and that is not going to get old at Penn State."

The NCAA's transfer exception expires by the start of Penn State training camp in early August.

Bench left well before that deadline. O'Brien declined to get into specifics about his post-spring evaluation meeting last week with Bench, but said the quarterback improved during the spring. He said he would help Bench and wished his former player the best.

"I told him the truth, and what he needed to do to get better," O'Brien said. "No starter has been named, but going in (to preseason practice) maybe you won't get as many reps as the other guys, but you're still going to get reps."

For now, junior college transfer Tyler Ferguson has an offseason edge by default after splitting spring reps with Bench. Incoming freshman quarterback and touted prospect Christian Hackenberg will also get an audition in preseason camp.

Notes
Last year's starting quarterback, Matt McGloin, is scheduled to take part in Washington Redskins rookie training camp. McGloin set the school season record for passing yardage (3,266) last year ... O'Brien confirmed that running back Zach Zwinak hurt his left wrist at the spring game 10 days ago but will be ready for the season. Zwinak will likely be kept out of full contact during preseason practice.

The Basketball Tournament: Pitt-led Untouchables take down Boeheim's Army

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Noah Levick/CSNPhilly.com Contributor

The Basketball Tournament: Pitt-led Untouchables take down Boeheim's Army

As far as The Basketball Tournament was concerned, Thursday night’s game was a matchup between No. 2 seed Boeheim’s Army and No. 3 seed Untouchables. However, in the minds of the players and the rowdy fans at Philadelphia University’s Gallagher Center, it was Syracuse vs. Pittsburgh, another edition of a classic rivalry.

Pitt and Syracuse, as the two normally do, delivered an entertaining game, a 91-84 win by the Untouchables, who were led by a team-high 22 points on 8 of 11 shooting from streaky lefty Jermaine Dixon. Ricky Harris, a former UMass guard and friend of Dixon, added 16 points.

For Syracuse, Friends Central High School alumnus and NBA veteran Hakim Warrick was the star attraction. Warrick posted 14 points and two crowd-pleasing dunks. Syracuse had another player from the Philadelphia area in center Rick Jackson. If the name rings a bell, it may be because of his partnership at both Syracuse and Neumann-Goretti High School with point guard Scoop Jardine. The January 2006 contest between Episcopal Academy, led by future NBA players Wayne Ellington and Gerald Henderson, and Neumann-Goretti, headed by Jackson and Jardine, is one of the better Philadelphia high school basketball games in recent memory.

Unsurprisingly, the key for the Untouchables was their smooth ball movement and shooting against Boeheim’s Army's vaunted 2-3 zone. The Untouchables held a substantial edge from three-point territory, making 13 of 31 attempts, compared to 6 of 19 for the 'Cuse contingent. After nailing one of his four three-balls to give the Untouchables a 40-28 lead, Dixon leaned over to the Boeheim’s Army bench and exchanged a few words.

James Southerland, a “ringer” for Syracuse brought in for this game, said, “There were some words here and there. But it’s a rivalry, so that’s how it’s going to be.”

Dixon said the level of intensity is “pretty much the same [as playing in the Big East]. We knew when we were playing them what kind of matchup it was going to be — physical. We knew they were going to sit in the zone, we knew what we were going to do. But ultimately, we were ready to win.”

The addition of Southerland and Donte Greene as ringers appeared to put a greater burden on coach Ryan Blackwell, who had to allocate minutes to 11 players. Pitt suited up only eight.

“We just struggled to find the best five-guy rotation throughout the game,” Boeheim’s Army guard Brandon Triche said.

The Untouchables had none of the same issues gelling as a unit. Dixon and coach Brandon Driver studied film and organized a pregame walkthrough to refresh their memories about how to attack the Boeheim’s Army zone. Even the players who didn’t share the court during college looked like they played together before.

“Team chemistry was big,” Harris said. “You add a big-name guy to your team, nine times out of 10, that’ll hurt you because they want to go out and show how good they are instead of playing the right way.”

Along with the desire to beat their rivals, personal pride was a major motivator for the The Untouchables.

“We’re competitive guys, we’ve always been underdogs our whole lives, and we want to show people that we can still play basketball five, six years out of college,” Harris said, “and I think we’re starting to bring our names back to light and proving ourselves again.”

LeVance Fields, the 5-foot-10 point guard of the 2009 Pitt team that lost to Villanova on Scottie Reynolds’ game-winner in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, continues to lead his squad. He yelled out instructions from the bench and called his teammates into a huddle when they started to show some nerves from the free throw line in the final minute.

Antonio Graves, who made four three-pointers and scored 12 points in only 19 minutes, said, “Getting to practice and compete against guys like LeVance every day, it made playing teams like Villanova, Syracuse and Connecticut so much easier because we knew we had competed so hard in practice.”

That competitive spirit and strong work ethic clearly led The Untouchables to be confident in their ability to beat any team in this tournament … especially Boeheim’s Army.

“Many of us haven’t lost to Syracuse,” Fields said. “Unfortunately, me and ‘Ton (Graves) lost to Syracuse when (Gerry) McNamara had that unbelievable run at [Madison Square] Garden, so we just wanted to keep our good streak going against them. Even though it’s years later, no disrespect, we feel like we own Syracuse. We always play pretty well against their zone, and we felt like we were going to do that tonight.”

Pitt players have proven time and again that they will beat you if you underestimate them. They have a difficult quarterfinal game against No. 1 seed City of Gods Saturday at noon on ESPN2. But as long as they’re playing with other guys whose toughness and dedication they trust, they’ll enjoy themselves and feel pretty good about their chances.

“We always talk about Pitt guys play together,” Dixon said. “We missed that. It’s always fun playing with Pitt guys, so that was the No. 1 thing — we wanted to play together.”

The Basketball Tournament: Philly-heavy Family Over Everything eliminated

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Noah Levick/CSNPhilly.com Contributor

The Basketball Tournament: Philly-heavy Family Over Everything eliminated

It’s not often that nostalgia blends with shoving, trash talk and desperate dives on the floor. At The Basketball Tournament, a 64-team competition with a $2 million prize for the winners, all those elements are in play.
 
Philadelphia University’s Gallagher Athletic Center hosted the Super 16 Thursday night, including the first contest of the evening between No. 1 seed City of Gods (COG) and No. 5 seed Family Over Everything (FOE), which ended in a 99-83 win for COG.
 
Many of the teams in the tournament are comprised of alumni from one school or players from a certain region. For FOE, there was a distinct Philly flavor; Scott Rodgers (Drexel ’09), Dionte Christmas (Temple ’09) and Maalik Wayns (Villanova ‘12) all played for Philadelphia schools. Co-coaches Marcus and Markieff Morris, members of the Pistons and Wizards respectively, grew up in Philadelphia and attended Prep Charter. Two of their teammates at Kansas were also on the squad, Tyshaun Taylor and Thomas Robinson (serving as an assistant coach).
 
City of Gods had a much more diverse mix of players, including 2005 Drexel graduate Phil Goss. The roster included Xavier Silas, who played in two games for the Sixers during the 2011-12 season, DerMarr Johnson, the sixth overall pick in the 2000 NBA draft and Michael Sweetney, the ninth pick in the 2003 draft.
 
The first of two 18-minute halves started at a high tempo, even though the tournament uses a 30-second shot clock. While Wayns, Taylor and Rodgers had some early success driving to the hole, COG stifled FOE’s offensive rhythm by switching to a trapping zone defense midway through the half. As FOE began to settle for threes, missing most of those attempts, COG got hot from long range. For the game, COG shot 14 of 27 from behind the arc, and FOE shot 9 of 27.
 
By the end of the half, COG had a 51-40 lead. Despite the occasional sensational floater by Wayns, who scored a team-high 22 points, or 25-foot rainbow jumper by Christmas, COG’s solid fundamentals, disciplined defense and balanced scoring neutralized FOE. Six players scored in double figures for COG, including Goss with 15 points on 4 for 5 shooting from the field. Silas’ 19 points (6 of 8 FG, 3 of 4 from three-point range) led the team.
 
“The one thing all these guys do is sacrifice their personal game — you look at Phil Goss, he’s so consistent … maybe not flashy, maybe not something where the crowd will jump out and go crazy, but consistent,” said COG coach Joe Connelly III, a former player development coach in the NBA and the older brother of Denver Nuggets GM Tim Connelly.
 
The Morris twins took their coaching duties very seriously on the other sideline, drawing up plays, calling out-of-bounds sets and constantly lobbying for foul calls to the referees. It was indeed a very physical game, as the teams combined to shoot 68 free throws. If the referees had decided to be more stringent about calling fouls for contact off the ball and during the elbow-heavy exchange for every rebound, there could have been even more.
 
When the lead stretched to 58-42 midway through the second half, FOE began to play with a stretch of desperation. For a spurt, that was effective, as a hoop by Sean Evans capped a 15-6 run. But with their thin eight-man rotation, FOE wasn't able to sustain that energy. COG continued to spread the ball around and force turnovers as the pro-Philly crowd voiced its frustrations with the referees and the fact that FOE’s tournament run was about to end.
 
“The first round, FOE had a big following and we knew that was going to be in their favor, but we still believed that we were the better team,” Silas said. “This is what we do. Every game overseas, every game in the NBA, there’s going to be thousands of people yelling at you, so that wasn’t a problem. That wasn’t even a factor.”
 
“The fans can’t play. They can do all the chanting they want to, but they can’t step on the floor and check up,” Goss said.
 
If FOE’s tournament hopes weren’t already dead, Goss nailed the dagger three with 3:03 remaining to make it 89-73.
 
It’s not hard to see why COG is a No. 1 seed. It's a determined, talented squad. In last year’s tournament, the team lost in the semifinals.
 
“We were pissed off that we lost, and we still feel how we felt after that game,” Silas said. “So we got some unfinished business.”
 
As COG discussed its approach to the tournament after the win, power forward James Gist and Connelly had an interesting exchange.
 
“We go with the flow of the game and whoever is getting it done is getting it done,” Connelly said. “You think about some of these teams that are adding ringers, we got a team full of ringers.”
 
“We got a team full of alphas,” Gist added.
 
“But they’re all alpha males,” Connelly said, “who have accepted it might not be the James Gist show, or it might not be the Xavier Silas show.
 
“We look at the stat sheet and then just throw it right in the trash. Because all that matters is win, go on to the next game.”
 
City of Gods will play The Untouchables, a team of mostly Pitt alumni (see story), in a quarterfinal matchup on Saturday.

Villanova basketball heading to Spain for exhibition games in August

Villanova basketball heading to Spain for exhibition games in August

The defending national champion Villanova Wildcats will be racking up its frequent flier miles in a few weeks.
 
The team will travel to Spain on Aug. 2 for an eight-day tour of Barcelona and Madrid that includes three exhibition games against Spanish Select Teams, before returning home Aug. 10.
 
The Wildcats’ first exhibition game is in Barcelona on Friday, Aug. 5, followed by their final two games in Madrid on Sunday, Aug. 7 and Tuesday, Aug. 9.
 
“We’re very excited to bring our team to Spain, the birthplace and home of St. Thomas of Villanova,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said in a release. “This trip will help all of us learn more about our University’s heritage while also giving us the chance to play three quality opponents as we continue to prepare for the 2016-17 regular season.”
 
Villanova heads into the upcoming season returning three starters: forwards Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, and point guard Jalen Brunson. Hart and Jenkins are back for their senior seasons after both players went through the NBA Pre-Draft beforing returning to 'Nova.
 
Per NCAA rules, teams can take a trip abroad once every four years. Villanova last took an overseas preseason trip to France and the Netherlands in August 2011.