HEISER: Long-suffering Penn State basketball program finally offers reason for hope
Penn State's 2016 recruiting class is ranked No. 7 in the nation.
The Nittany Lions have received verbal commitments from players ranked No. 1 and No. 6 in the state of Pennsylvania.
In the process, the Lions out-recruited well-known major programs such as Maryland, Indiana, Illinois and Pitt.
No surprise there, right?
After all, PSU football coach James Franklin came to Happy Valley with a well-documented reputation as a master recruiter and he's done nothing in his two years at the school to alter that perception.
There's just one catch.
We're not talking about Franklin's high-profile PSU football program.
No, we're talking about Patrick Chambers' long-suffering PSU basketball program.
That's not a misprint. Penn State's 2016 basketball recruiting class is ranked No. 7 in the nation by the highly regarded recruiting website 247sports.com, ahead of hoop powers such as UConn, Duke and Kentucky.
Unbelievable, isn't it?
Of course, it's very early in the recruiting process and a lot can — and will — change between now and National Letter of Intent Day.
Still, to have a PSU basketball recruiting class ranked in the national top 10 at anytime is — in a word — stunning.
Carr a key addition: The Lions vaulted to that lofty perch on Monday, when Roman Catholic standout Tony Carr verbally committed to the Lions. The four-star Philadelphia kid is also rated the No. 1 senior player in the state. The 6-foot, 5-inch point guard turned down schools with blue-chip basketball pedigrees such as Maryland and Temple to join Chambers' program. He is rated among the top 40 players in the nation according to some experts and is the first four-star PSU hoops recruit in at least a decade. He's probably PSU's most heralded recruit since Parade All-American Danny Earl in 1993.
He joins his Roman Catholic teammate, shooting guard Nazeer Bostick, as a 2016 PSU verbal commitment, along with Virginia power forward Joe Hampton. The 6-5 Bostick and the 6-8 Hampton are both three-star recruits and Bostick is rated the No. 6 player in Pennsylvania.
Carr and Bostick will join former Roman Catholic star Shep Garner at PSU. Garner will be a sophomore guard with the Nittany Lions in the fall after averaging 9.2 points per game last season as a freshman.
Chambers will look to add yet another Roman Catholic player in four-star prospect Lamar Stevens, who has offers from Penn State, Pitt, Marquette, Maryland, Villanova and Temple, among others. The 6-6 small forward is the No. 2 recruit in Pennsylvania.
It should come as no surprise that Roman Catholic, led by Carr, Bostick and Stevens, won the PIAA Class AAAA state title this past March.
Chambers a Philly guy: Chambers has deep roots in the Philly area, so it's not a shock that he's always heavily recruited that basketball hotbed. He's a Newtown Square native and a former Villanova assistant. But there's no doubt that, heading into his fifth season at PSU, he's finding more recruiting success in the City of Brotherly Love than ever before.
Chambers is coming off his first winning season with the Lions at 18-16, but his overall record is just 56-75, a .427 winning percentage, and his Big Ten record is much worse (16-56, a .222 winning percentage.)
Most coaches with a four-year record like that would be on a sizzling hot seat, but not at PSU, a school with a less-than-stellar hoops history. Instead, Chambers received a contract extension in March through the 2018-2019 season.
That vote of confidence, and Chambers' high-energy personality, apparently resonated with a few key recruits. Now, Chambers appears poised to lift the Lions' basketball program to unprecedented heights in a few years.
Fans have reason to get excited: Fans are already speculating about future NCAA Tournament berths and — gasp — maybe even a Big Ten championship.
That's mighty bold talk for a program that has exactly two winning conference seasons since joining the Big Ten in 1992, compared to nine last-place finishes. The Lions have earned just three NCAA bids during that span.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed. The high-profile recruits could change their minds before officially signing. They could be vastly overrated. They could get injured. Or the city kids could find remote Happy Valley unappealing and quickly transfer to a more urban environment.
For now, however, the heralded 2016 recruiting class offers Nittany Nation something that has been in short supply when it comes to the school's men's basketball program — hope.
Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.