NCAA

Penn State's Hackenberg, Johnson undecided on futures

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Penn State's Hackenberg, Johnson undecided on futures

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- Two of Penn State's best players are considering their NFL draft potential and whether to return next season.

For now, Christian Hackenberg and Austin Johnson are preparing for Penn State's game against Georgia in the TaxSlayer Bowl on Jan. 2.

Both players have remained consistent on the topic throughout the season. They're still waiting to hear back from the NFL Draft Advisory Board and have met with coach James Franklin to map out a timeline to announce their intentions.

"We want to have a plan and be organized with whatever we decide," Franklin said. "It's not going to be someone coming out and throwing something out midweek on a tweet. It's going to be something we do together and do it the way they want it to be done."

Hackenberg said the board's analysis of him won't be the determining factor in his decision. Instead, he'll sit down with family and consider multiple factors after the bowl game.

"I think it's obviously going to be a tool in that decision when that time comes. But again, right now I think it's really just going down and making sure we execute against Georgia," Hackenberg said.

Hackenberg's completion percentage has fallen each year following former coach Bill O'Brien's departure after Hackenberg's freshman season. Hackenberg completed 58.9 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns and 10 interceptions as a freshman. He completed 55.8 percent of his throws last season, his first under Franklin, and just 53.3 this season.

Johnson's stock has improved with more exposure in the middle of a defense that has been among the best in the country the last two seasons.

Johnson was the primary run-stuffer each of the last two seasons and finished with 119 tackles and 6 1/2 sacks in that span. Often lining up directly over opposing centers, Johnson demanded double teams that freed up fellow defensive tackle Anthony Zettel and ends Garrett Sickels and Carl Nassib. Penn State finished 14th in total defense, and Nassib led the country with 15.5 sacks.

Other than communication with his mother, who keeps up on her son's draft stock, Johnson said he isn't worried about the future.

"I really don't pay that much attention to it," Johnson said before the regular-season finale. "She sends me stuff, I look at it, and just kind of keep on going on about my day. It's about this team. This is where I am right now."

At least one of their coaches understands the draft-decision process.

Wide receivers coach Josh Gattis inquired about his own draft stock as a junior at Wake Forest and went on to play two seasons for the Chicago Bears after being drafted in the fifth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2007. The board returned more potential outcomes compared to now, where its members identify only players with first- or second-round potential. All others are advised to stay in school.

"Each kid has to sit down and weigh their best interests, not only from football, their academic and their social life and family life structures at that point," Gattis said. "It's a stressful time for a lot of kids because they want to make the best decision and you can imagine, 19-, 20-year-old kids getting pulled in a lot of different directions, not necessarily are they all for the benefit of the kid."

Johnson has earned a degree from Penn State and is set to graduate this weekend. Hackenberg said he is on pace to graduate a semester early, which could happen as soon as this summer.

Hackenberg recently meet with new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. He was intrigued by Moorhead's looming implementation of the spread offense.

"I've never really ran what was labeled a spread offense ever in my life, so I was kind of curious how it worked," Hackenberg said. "It was pretty cool how he broke it down and the intricacies with it and how he teaches it to his guys."

Can Villanova get back to the Final Four earlier than expected?

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USA Today Sports Images

Can Villanova get back to the Final Four earlier than expected?

Is Villanova ahead of schedule?

It's a question worth considering as this college basketball season careens towards what figures to be an especially wild and unpredictable month of March. 

With no scholarship seniors on the roster, a lot of people - myself included - figured the Wildcats were a year away from seriously contending for another national championship. I expected this year's group to improve as the season progressed, compete for a Big East championship and maybe win a couple NCAA Tournament games. Then, with everyone returning for the 2020-2021 season, they'd be a Top 5 team with a legit shot of winning the program's fourth national title and third since 2016.  

But several factors have me thinking these Wildcats could arrive at the Final Four a year early.

Villanova won its 20th game of the season Wednesday night at DePaul, a convincing 91-71 victory in which the Wildcats made 18 of their 26 three-point attempts. They are ranked 12th in the country, with an opportunity to climb higher with a win Saturday at Xavier. They are 20-6 overall and 9-4 in the Big East, and a three-game losing streak a few weeks ago is starting to feel like a distant memory.  

As is often the case with Jay Wright's teams, this group is picking up steam as February comes to a close. They are playing that familiar selfless brand of 'Villanova basketball' that has served Wright's previous teams so well in postseason play. 

And, maybe most importantly, there aren't any dominant teams in college basketball this season. No teams that would be an insurmountable obstacle to Villanova in the NCAA Tournament.

So does Villanova have a shot to win it all this year? Here are three reasons why it could happen, and three reasons why they could fall short.

3 reasons Villanova can win a National Championship

1. The Gillespie-Bey 1-2 Punch

Junior Collin Gillespie and sophomore Saddiq Bey are as good a duo as any in the country. Both guys are capable of carrying Villanova in March. Gillespie leads Villanova in scoring, assists and steals. He scored a season-high 29 points last Sunday at Temple and is averaging more than 18 points in his last 13 games. He's shooting 43 percent from three-point range over that span and is a strong candidate for First Team All-Big East honors.

Bey is in the midst of a breakout season that has put him squarely on the radar of NBA talent evaluators. He's averaging 15.6 points and 5.0 rebounds and leads Villanova with a 46 percent three-point accuracy. Like Gillespie, Bey has stepped up his production in recent weeks. He's averaging more than 17 points and is shooting 52 percent from three point range in his last 12 games. Of course, Bey is playing himself into becoming a potential first round draft pick, which would throw a wrench into the notion that everyone will be back for Villanova next season.

2. Three-Point Barrage

Villanova shoots a ton of three-point shots. It can be ugly when those shots aren't falling (more on that later). But when the shots are going down, they can beat anyone in the country, and we've seen the Wildcats at their best recently. Dating back to halftime of Sunday’s win at Temple and extending through Wednesday's win at DePaul, Villanova has made 31 of its last 46 three-point attempts, a staggering 67 percent.

It would be silly to expect that type of shooting to continue. But even if they can make close to 40 percent of their long range shots, they'll be a very tough out in March.

3. Freshmen Maturing

Villanova's two freshman starters are X-factors: the Wildcats are very difficult to deal with when Jeremiah Robinson-Earl and Justin Moore are playing well. Robinson-Earl was just named the Big East Freshman of the Week for the sixth time this season. He's averaging 10.9 points and 9.3 rebounds and has established himself as an elite rebounder on the collegiate level. He's also playing with more confidence on the offensive end, trusting his ability to knock down the perimeter jumper.

Moore was terrific against DePaul, scoring 17 points and making 4 of 5 three-point attempts. He's proven to be a very skilled guard capable of getting to the basket as well as scoring from the outside, and he plays a valuable role as a complementary scorer to Gillespie and Bey.

3 reasons Villanova could fall short

1. Trouble on the Boards

The Wildcats have been significantly out-rebounded on several occasions and are particularly vulnerable on the offensive glass. This problem is exacerbated when Robinson-Earl gets in foul trouble. They were out-rebounded by an average of nearly seven rebounds per game during a three-game losing streak in early February. Villanova currently ranks 129th in the country in rebounding margin, pretty average among 350 Division 1 schools. This is definitely something worth monitoring in March when each possession becomes more valuable.

2. Sleeping in the Streets

One of Wright's favorite mottos is 'Shoot 'em up and sleep in the streets'. It means, for better or for worse, Villanova is going to keep shooting. Wright doesn't want his players to hesitate when they have an open look. Shoot first and ask questions later. As mentioned earlier, when the Wildcats are making shots it's a thing of beauty. But when they're not, it can make for some agonizing offensive performances.

Villanova has its share of good shooters, but they also have several inconsistent shooters. In the one-and-done format of the NCAA Tournament, they're one cold-shooting night away from elimination.

3. Slow Starts

Villanova has struggled at the beginning of games quite a bit this season. It's not uncommon to look up at the scoreboard 10 minutes into the game and see them with 10 or 12 points. Sometimes they're able to overcome these sluggish starts, sometimes they're not. As the level of competition picks up in March, it becomes more difficult to climb out of a double-digit hole in the first half. Starting games with more energy will be a point of emphasis with postseason basketball right around the corner.

Former Temple coach Matt Rhule selling sprawling estate for $2.5 million

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Realtor.com

Former Temple coach Matt Rhule selling sprawling estate for $2.5 million

It's a big month for Philly-connected college coaches and real estate. 

Former Temple football coach and current Carolina Panthers coach Matt Rhule is selling his very nice Waco, Texas estate for $2.5 million, according to the Charlotte Business Journal.

The listing news comes just days after rumblings emerged of Villanova's Jay Wright listing his Berwyn home for a similar price.

Rhule's house going up for sale, of course, is a little more self-explanatory: he just landed a new job in Charlotte, with a mind-boggling seven-year deal, meaning he has no longer has any reason to hold on to Texas real estate.

The house itself holds up plenty of axioms about Texas culture: full of wooden bannisters and exposed brick, and laid out over a sprawling 8,150 square feet, everything truly is bigger (and more rustic) in that state.

The main house comes with five bedrooms, five full bathrooms, a commercial-grade kitchen, a temperature-controlled wine cellar, and... an elevator.

An elevator.

The rest of the 5.53-acre estate includes 3,000 square feet of covered exterior space, an in-ground pool, a basketball court, and a gym.

Here's a look through some highlights: