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.

Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

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Penn State men's hockey ranked No. 1 for first time in program history

At 16-2-1, Penn State's men's hockey team is ranked first in the nation for the first time in program history.

The Nittany Lions have improved each of the last four years under head coach Guy Gadowsky. 

Their record by year:

      2013-14: 8-26-2
      2014-15: 18-15-4
Last season: 21-13-4
This season: 16-2-1

Penn State received 30 of 50 first-place votes in the USCHO Division I poll. Denver is ranked No. 2, followed by Boston University, Minnesota-Duluth and Massachusetts-Lowell (see USCHO poll).

Penn State was ranked fourth last week before sweeping Michigan State.

Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

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Villanova focused on learning from win over Seton Hall, not No. 1 ranking

A few hours before Villanova hosted Seton Hall on Monday night, head coach Jay Wright came home and talked to his wife, Patty.

“You know you’re No. 1?” she said.

Wright didn’t react much to the news, nor did the players on the team when they found out during the pregame meal a little bit later.

“It’s not really that big of a deal this time,” Wright said. “I think we were all much more concerned with Seton Hall.”

Being No. 1 may almost be old news at this point, but thoroughly dominating good teams at the Pavilion never gets stale for the Wildcats, who cruised to a 76-46 demolition of the Pirates on the same day they regained the top spot of the rankings after a week at No. 3 (see Instant Replay).

Senior Kris Jenkins sparked the win with 16 points, shooting 4 for 6 from the three-point line and 4 for 4 from the foul line — numbers he cared far more about than the No. 1 in front of Villanova.

“That’s just a number,” Jenkins said. “We focus on getting better each and every day. We can lose our next game and we won’t be No. 1.” 

Villanova reached the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for the first time in the program’s illustrious history last season, a couple of months before winning the national title on an iconic buzzer-beater from Jenkins.

The Wildcats then spent five weeks at No. 1 this season before a 66-58 loss to Butler on Jan. 4 moved them out of the top spot — only briefly, as it turned out.

“Every time you do something first is exciting,” Wright said. “And then you learn from it. I think we learned a great lesson last year and I think it helped us this year. And we learned a lesson again when we went to Butler. So you keep learning from it, that’s what we really take from it.”

As the Wildcats said last season, the most important thing is finishing the season No. 1. And they certainly showed once again that they have the chops to repeat as national champs — a prospect that Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard called “pretty exciting” even after his team had its brains beaten in.

“That’s a tough team to play,” Willard said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. If you’re not clicking on all cylinders when you come here, that can happen.”

Willard went on to say that “if Josh Hart’s not the National Player of the Year, then there’s something wrong.” But against the Pirates, Hart had a modest 11 points as Villanova showed off its impressive balance with all seven players in Wright’s rotation finishing with at least eight points.

Afterwards, Wright credited his three seniors — Jenkins, Hart and Darryl Reynolds (eight points, nine rebounds) — for helping the team bounce back from a sub-optimal performance in Saturday’s 70-57 win over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.

“I’m just really fortunate to have three guys who are experienced and have been successful but are really humble,” Wright said. “We looked at the film, told them St. John’s played harder than us, and we took care of it. I think our seniors set the tone.”

Saturday’s win wasn’t the only game at the Garden on Villanova’s mind. The last time the Wildcats played Seton Hall, they suffered a stinging defeat to the Pirates in the title game of the Big East Tournament. 

Jenkins, though, insisted, that rare loss didn’t offer any extra motivation. Neither did the fact that Villanova set a record with its 47th straight victory at the Pavilion. Or that Monday’s win was the program’s 1,700th of all time.

“Numbers are something that is becoming a challenge for us,” Wright admitted. “It’s a great challenge to have. Right now, it doesn’t really do anything for us. But trust me, at the end of the year, we take great pride in that. All it can do is distract us right now. We know we have to answer the questions and you guys do a great job. I usually learn the numbers from you guys. It’s just not gonna do anything for us right now.”

Wright may not always like talking about his team’s absurdly impressive accomplishments. But he certainly loves games like this one as the Wildcats dominated all phases, from start to finish.

Deadly long-range shooting? Tenacious defense? Creating turnovers and scoring off them? Big-time hustle plays and rebounds? Electrifying dunks? Villanova did it all Monday in front of a raucous section of students back from winter break and one spectator named Ben Simmons, who took in the game from a courtside seat and applauded with everyone else.

What’s it like coaching a game like that? Is it ever hard when your No. 1 team is up by 30?

“It’s not difficult at all,” Wright said with a laugh. “It’s enjoyable. Things are going well, so you’re enjoying yourself.”