For Jok family, Penn-Iowa a long way from Sudan


For Jok family, Penn-Iowa a long way from Sudan

Tonight at the University of Iowa, two brothers will play against each other in a Division I college basketball game.

On its own, this is an achievement few families can match.

Now throw in the fact that another one of their brothers will be playing for a high school state football championship just a couple of hours away, and it becomes even more surreal.

And when you consider that just 10 years ago the Jok family -- among them Penn senior guard Dau Jok and Iowa freshman swingman Peter Jok -- escaped from war-torn Southern Sudan after their father, a general in the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, was murdered … well, tonight’s athletic festivities in Iowa can be described only as a remarkable testament of courage and determination.

“It’s incredible,” said Dau, shaking his head in disbelief, shortly before departing for Iowa with his Penn teammates. “It’s a blessing, man.”

“It’s crazy,” Peter told reporters in Iowa. “I never thought I would get to play him. But it is a great opportunity at the end of the day, so I’m just looking to take advantage of that.”

While the youngest brother, Jo Jo Jok, a defensive end at Dowling Catholic in West Des Moines, will be playing in a title game at the University of Northern Iowa, the main event will be in Iowa City, where the Joks expect at least 40 family members to be in attendance for the Iowa-Penn hoops clash at Carver-Hawkeye Arena (7 p.m., Big Ten Network).

For Dau, this is an especially meaningful game as it marks a long-awaited return to Iowa, the state where his mother brought the family in 2003 after they fled Sudan and made pit stops in Rumbek and Uganda.

Dau didn’t know anything about basketball when they first settled in Des Moines but began to play the game at a local YMCA to avoid the gang life that plagued some other Sudanese refugees. And when he learned basketball could be a path to an education, he started to take the sport more seriously -- and very nearly accepted an offer on the spot from former Penn head coach Glen Miller.

“We came here for a better life,” Dau said. “And that better life is through education.”

Dau has yet to become a true impact player in college, having played in a reserve capacity during his first three seasons, as well as in the first three games of his senior year. But his impact at Penn has been measured in other ways -- as a campus leader who devours all aspects of academia and recently applied for a Fulbright Scholarship, as an activist who began his own foundation for Southern Sudanese children and as a basketball captain who’s always the first one off the bench to greet his teammates during timeouts.

Why does he care so much about Penn basketball when he doesn’t play that much and has so many other big things happening in his life?

“Freshman year when I wasn’t playing, I had to decide: You can be really mad on the bench and be a cancer, but what does that do?” Jok said. “That doesn’t change the coach’s position. That doesn’t make him play you more. So I was like, ‘If I’m here, I’m going to try to have an impact and cheer on the guys who are playing. It’s not their decision I’m not playing.’”

As for tonight’s game, Jok said, “Whether I play 30 seconds or 10 minutes, Coach [Jerome] Allen knows I’m going to go out there and bust my butt.” He’d do that for any game, of course. But he has a lot riding on this one after dishing out some friendly trash talk with his brother.

“It started in the summer and I was like, ‘We’re going to give you guys one of your few non-conference losses,” Dau said. “That was the extent. To be honest with you, there’s no need for it. I don’t think they’re going to be ready for us. Their first four games have been blowouts. So I don’t think they’re going to be prepared for us.

“I need the W. The rest of my life, I’m going to be able to call him and just say, ‘We beat you guys.’”

The competitive streak between the two brothers goes back a long way. Dau has broken game systems when he plays video games with Peter. And he still boasts that he has a winning record against him playing one-on-one.

But Dau will also be the first to tell you that Peter has long since surpassed him on the basketball court, where he was once one of the nation’s top high school players and is already averaging 9.8 points per game through four games at a Big Ten school.

“I’m the least athletic in my family,” Dau said. “I like to joke about that.”

But even though Peter is the better player and the Hawkeyes -- coached by former Penn guard Fran McCaffery -- the better team, Dau is confident that the big brother will prevail in this one. He also plans to make sure his family members will be pulling for the underdogs from Philly. Although when asked if Penn can pull the upset, Dau said, “I wouldn’t call it an upset.”

“I’m telling people if they’re going to sit on my side, they’ll have to wear something Penn,” Dau laughed. “They can cheer for individuals. But when it comes to teams, they better cheer for Penn. After all, we’re the better school.”

But no matter who wins, when the final horn sounds, Dau will shake hands with Peter, walk back into the visitors’ locker room and think about their old lives in a different world, when thousands of spectators cheering them on in a college basketball game was not even tangible enough to be considered a dream.

“It’s crazy where we were and where we are now,” Dau said. “Every once in a while, I’m reminded how far our journeys have taken us.”

Sans Spellman, challenges face Villanova in run to repeat

Sans Spellman, challenges face Villanova in run to repeat

VILLANOVA, Pa. — Darryl Reynolds said it hurt. And he wasn’t alone. 

A month ago, Reynolds and the rest of the Villanova Wildcats found out five-star freshman big man Omari Spellman would not be eligible to play in 2016-17.

And despite Spellman — at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds — being the biggest competition cutting into Reynolds’ playing time for his senior year, Reynolds understood the ramifications from losing what was expected to be a key cog in Villanova’s next run for glory.

“We lost a — no pun intended — big piece to the puzzle,” Reynolds said Tuesday at Villanova’s media day. “He went down, but everybody else has realized that we need that much more from everybody else.

“Me and Omari are close, in more ways than on the court. It would’ve been exciting to play with him. But it also provided that much more motivation.”

Motivation because Reynolds, a Lower Merion grad, also understands what the ramifications mean for him, too. The 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior may arguably be the most important player on the 2016-17 Wildcats. 

For three years, Reynolds has largely taken a backseat, hidden by the shadow of Daniel Ochefu. Now he’s front and center.

“He battled through that,” fellow senior Josh Hart said. “Never complained. Never had any down moments. Brought it every single day. We know he can play at this level.”

Reynolds heads a position in which Villanova was supposed to have depth. Now it has question marks. Reynolds and Spellman were going to be a 1-2 punch inside and a perfect supplement to a bevy of offensive talent around them. The question marks up front include sophomore Tim Delaney and freshman Dylan Painter. How quickly the two of them get going will be big. And so, too, will be figuring out where Fordham transfer forward Eric Paschall fits in the rotation.

Coach Jay Wright, who said Reynolds would be a starter, talked more about the other pieces behind Reynolds when asked what he’d be expecting from the senior big man.

“I think part of our challenge is Tim Delaney and Dylan Painter,” Wright said. “Which one of them, if not both of them, can step up and give us the depth that Darryl gave us last year up front when we needed size? Down the stretch in big games against big-time teams, you need that size. We’ve got to develop Tim and Dylan and see how they do with that, see how Eric Paschall can do. Can he play bigger? We definitely have our challenges.”

Those challenges also include replacing leadership roles vacated by Ryan Arcidiacono, Ochefu and a trio of walk-ons.

Insert Reynolds there, too. The Wildcats will start three seniors this year. Hart and Kris Jenkins may do most of the scoring, but they’re pretty reserved off the court and when talking to the media.

“Obviously Ryan (Arcidiacono) was a great leader for us. He was our rock,” Hart said. “When you look at this team, a lot of times we look at [Reynolds]. He calms everybody down. He vocally tries to make sure everybody’s on one accord. Basketball-wise, he’s always been good. You saw the Providence game last year when we needed him to step up and he had, what, like 19 and 11?”

Hart remembers the numbers well, even if he added an extra rebound to the ledger. Reynolds was 9 for 10 from the floor and had two blocks in 36 minutes of action to help the Wildcats earn revenge with a road win after the Friars beat them in Philadelphia two weeks prior.

That game was the last of a three-game stretch in late January into early February when Ochefu was sidelined with a concussion. Reynolds’ minutes over that stretch: 29, 31 and 36, respectively.

That experience, Reynolds says, coupled with the rest of 2015-16 — when he saw an uptick in minutes from his sophomore season’s 5.4 per game to 17.1 per game — will be easy to draw from in 2016-17.

“There’s nothing like getting out there and actually playing,” Reynolds said. “You see a lot from the sidelines. You learn a lot playing spot minutes. You get different things. But just being out there throughout entire games, playing 20-plus minutes, it teaches you things that you could never have learned from another perspective. I learned a lot from those experiences and I think it made me the player that I am in many ways. It’s the same thing with this year. I’m still going to learn a ton in a sense of being out there that much more and not having Daniel. 

“In many ways he taught me a lot. So not having him, not having that voice in my ear, not having that guy to go against in practice, it will make me grow up. 

“Nothing wrong with that,” he said with a smile.

Temple picked to finish 6th in AAC preseason poll

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Temple picked to finish 6th in AAC preseason poll

This is starting to become a trend. One Temple hopes to continue to prove wrong.

For the third straight year, Temple was chosen to finish sixth in the American Athletic Conference preseason poll. The poll, which was released on Monday, is voted on by the conference's head coaches.

Also selected to finish sixth last season, the Owls posted a 21-12 overall record and a 14-4 mark in the AAC to reach the NCAA Tournament. In 2014-15, TU tied for third in the AAC with a 13-5 record and was one of the last teams left out of the Big Dance.

Cincinnati was tabbed to win the American title in the poll, just ahead of UConn.

Temple, who returns three starters from last season's team, opens the 2016-17 campaign against city rival La Salle at the Liacouras Center on Nov. 11.