Confident Bill O'Brien barnstorming for Penn State


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.

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.

Villanova, Penn with polar opposite NCAA Tournament draws

Villanova, Penn with polar opposite NCAA Tournament draws

No surprises on the Main Line and well, the Quakers have quite the hill to climb to advance.

Villanova on Sunday night was awarded the 1-seed in the East Region and will face the winner of the LIU Brooklyn/Radford game Thursday in Pittsburgh. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:50 p.m. on TNT.

The Wildcats have been a top-two seed since 2014 and it's the second straight year they're a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Villanova was the No. 1 overall seed in last year's tournament.

Penn was named the 16th seed in the Midwest Region and will face the No. 1-seeded Kansas Jayhawks on Thursday at 2 p.m. on TBS in Wichita, Kansas.

Steve Donahue has the Quakers back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007 in his third season as Penn's head coach.

The Quakers are 24-8 and this will be their 24th-ever appearance in the tournament.

'Nova survived a scare from Providence on Saturday night to win its second straight Big East title and its third in the past four years.

If the Wildcats beat LIU Brooklyn/Radford, they'll face the winner of the No. 8-seeded Virginia Tech and No. 9 seed Alabama. Purdue is the No. 2 seed in the East.

Also in the East are No. 3 Texas Tech and No. 4 Wichita State.

Penn aims to end 11-year drought this weekend

USA Today Images

Penn aims to end 11-year drought this weekend

NBC Sports Philadelphia anchor/reporter Amy Fadool and senior producer Sean Kane get you set for all the weekend's local college basketball games with Fastbreak Friday. With the regular season ending this weekend, this will be the final Fastbreak Friday column of the season.

Temple (16-13, 8-9 AAC) at Tulsa (18-11, 11-6 AAC), Sunday at 3 p.m.
 It’s been a rough season for the Temple Owls. Yes, there was that win over ranked Wichita State in the middle of a 5-game win streak. But after the stumbles down the stretch, that seems like a distant memory. 

Of course, the bad can be washed away with an AAC tournament run, but first, the Owls need to close out on the road against Tulsa. 

Given their track record on the road, things don’t line up well for Fran Dunphy’s crew. Plus, it’s dollar dog, dollar soda and dollar popcorn night at Tulsa. That’s a delicious trifecta. 

But there is still some fight in this team. Quintin Rose and Shizz Alston have been everything the Owls have needed, and throw in Nate Pierre-Louis and you have a nice core back for next season.

Temple 71,  Tulsa 70

Pennsylvania (21-7, 11-1 Ivy) at Yale (14-14, 7-5 Ivy), Friday at 7 p.m.
Pennsylvania (21-7, 11-1 Ivy) at Brown (11-14, 4-8 Ivy), Saturday at 6 p.m.
Penn enters the final weekend of the regular season in control of its own destiny. If the Quakers beat Yale and Brown on the road they'll win their first Ivy League championship since 2007 and earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament, which will be played at the Palestra next weekend. It all adds up to Penn having the inside track to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 years.

This seems like an appropriate time to salute the job done by head coach Steve Donahue. In just his third season at Penn, he has the Quakers poised to reclaim top billing in the Ivy League. He inherited a team that finished 9-19 in the 2014-2015 season and promptly began a swift rebuilding project. Penn went 11-17 in Donahue's first season, 13-14 in his second year, and now stand at 21-7 overall and 11-1 in conference play. Look for those winning ways to continue this weekend and for Donahue and company to do some celebrating.

Penn 73, Yale 66
Penn 69, Brown 60

La Salle (13-17, 7-10 A-10) at St. Joseph's (14-15, 9-8 A-10), Saturday at 2 p.m.
La Salle and St. Joe's will each try to keep the good times rolling heading into next week's A-10 Tournament. La Salle has won three of its last four games, including a convincing 18-point win over Dayton earlier this week. St. Joseph's meanwhile has a 5-1 record in its last six games and just recorded arguably one of the most stunning victories of this college basketball season.

The Hawks went on the road and beat No. 18 Rhode Island, 78-48, on Tuesday, spoiling the Rams' senior night in the process. It was the first road win over a ranked team for St. Joseph's since 1979 and it came in shockingly easy fashion. I expect the Hawks to build on that momentum this weekend and avenge a three-point loss to La Salle earlier this season.

St. Joseph's 74, La Salle 68 

Drexel (12-19, 6-12 CAA) at James Madison (10-21, 6-12 CAA), Saturday at 4 p.m. in first round of CAA Tournament
The Dragons' season has been marked with highs and lows. While it may seem like a marginal improvement — with 12 wins to their credit compared to nine last season — they did double their conference win total. 

Also, Drexel beat the top two teams in the CAA this season as well as set an NCAA Division-I record for the largest comeback ever when they erased a 34-point deficit against Delaware. 

But the Dragons did have two separate losing streaks that would cause any coach to lose sleep, one of five straight and the other of four straight losses. 

Drexel begins the quest for its first-ever CAA tournament title against JMU, then Charleston awaits on basically home turf. Go ahead and make it a baker’s dozen, Dragons. 

Drexel 76, JMU 74

Prediction Records
Sean Kane: 30-11
Amy Fadool: 22-21