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

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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.”

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.”