James Franklin dominating the state as he enters Year 4 at PSU

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James Franklin dominating the state as he enters Year 4 at PSU

After being introduced as Penn State’s head coach in January 2014, James Franklin said something that will either be etched on his tombstone or scrawled upon it by graffiti artists.

He said he wanted to “dominate the state.”

He was talking specifically about recruiting, which in truth is (and always has been) the goal of the guy heading the commonwealth's highest-profile Division I football program: You want to keep the best kids close to home.

The phrase was nonetheless used to mock him as his team struggled through consecutive 7-6 seasons his first two years on the job. The Lions broke out in 2016, going 11-3 and winning the Big Ten, and now it can be said with certainty that he has lived up to his vow — that while he and his staff have generally excelled on the recruiting trail, they have done particularly well in their backyard.

That very much includes the Delaware Valley, as stands to reason: Franklin is a Langhorne native.

Of the 120 players listed on the Nittany Lions’ preseason roster, 45 are Pennsylvanians. That’s 37.5 percent and includes a guy who is not only the best player on the team but also one of the best in the country, running back Saquon Barkley. While a native of the Bronx, he grew up near Allentown. 

With a couple New Jerseyans factored in, there are 14 from Philadelphia and its environs. They include left tackle Ryan Bates (Warrington/Archbishop Wood), the Lions’ best offensive lineman, starting defensive tackle Curtis Cothran (Newtown/Council Rock North) and starting defensive end Shareef Miller (Philadelphia/George Washington).

Also in that number are Miller’s two primary backups, Ryan Buchholz (Malvern/Great Valley) and Shaka Toney (Philadelphia/Imhotep Charter), as well as starting wide receiver Juwan Johnson (Glassboro, New Jersey), who is widely viewed as a breakout candidate this season, his first as a regular.

(Not included on the season’s first depth chart, released Tuesday, was cornerback John Reid [Mount Laurel, New Jersey/St. Joe’s Prep]. A returning starter, he injured a knee during spring practice and is expected to miss much of the season, if not all of it.)

“Obviously for us to be the team we want to be and have the type of program that we want to have, we have to go a great job in the state of Pennsylvania,” Franklin said Tuesday, as he looked ahead to Saturday’s season opener against Akron.

He noted not only his ties to the Philadelphia area but also the fact that some of his former teammates at East Stroudsburg, where he played quarterback in the early 1990s, have gone into coaching.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it,” he said, “when you can walk into a high school office and you’ve got a relationship, and you kind of understand those schools and their backgrounds and their strengths and their weaknesses, all those types of things, it helps. It really does. They have a familiarity with you, you have a familiarity with them and there’s trust there. So I think all those relationships and those networks have been critical to what we’ve been able to do so far.”

Bates is a guy all the big schools wanted, after serving as a two-way tackle on a Wood club that won consecutive state titles in 2013 and 2014. He redshirted his first year at PSU while beginning the growth process from 275 pounds to his current 315. Last season, he started the first 10 games at left guard and the last four at left tackle, after injuries left the Lions threadbare at the latter position.

“It wasn’t that big of a deal for me,” he said. “I do feel more comfortable out at tackle, honestly. I feel better in space. I trust my feet.”

He wound up making a pair of freshman All-America teams, and line coach Matt Limegrover now regards the redshirt sophomore as a guy who is “going to be a cornerstone for us the next three years.”

The other locals have grown into their roles as well — in Cothran’s case, literally. He was a 230-pound defensive end when he arrived on campus in 2013. He is now listed at 295, and after starting eight games last year said Tuesday that he considers it “a blessing” to be listed as the regular heading into the opener.

“And,” he added, “it definitely just shows the amount of work that goes into it. I mean, nothing's ever easy, especially in college football. Through the years of grinding everything out, I'm thankful to be here.”

Same for Johnson, who last year recorded his first two career catches but is now filling the spot played in 2016 by Chris Godwin, a third-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“Sleep on me if you want to,” it said on Johnson’s Twitter page at one point during spring practice. “I’ll wake you up soon.”

By then the 6-foot-4, 218-pound redshirt sophomore had awakened just about everybody. Admittedly inconsistent his first two seasons in the program, his strides were such that receivers coach Josh Gattis called him “one of the most improved players on the team” in an interview with the Big Ten Network.

Nothing appears to have changed since then.

“Eager season,” it now says on Johnson’s Twitter page.

The defensive end corps likewise oozes potential, despite the departures of the starters Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. Miller and Buchholz both saw plenty of action last year — position coach Sean Spencer prefers to rotate fresh bodies — and redshirt freshmen like Shane Simmons and Toney are intriguing prospects.

Cothran, in fact, called Simmons “a freak of nature,” and Bates said much the same of Toney, who is unusually slight (6-3, 218) for his position.

“Shaka,” Bates said, “is probably one of the fastest guys I've ever gone against. I feel like I'm playing a corner at defensive end just because of his sheer speed and his quickness coming off the ball.”

The Lions likewise appear to have turned a corner. And it is in large part because they have taken some familiar exits.

Penn State tops Utah to win NIT championship

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Penn State tops Utah to win NIT championship

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Flavor Flav had his red cap flipped backward as he pulled out his iPhone on the Madison Square Garden court. Flav held the camera steady and recorded cousin Shep Garner clip the final strands of the championship net and wave it toward the Penn State die-hards.

Flav's T-shirt at the NIT said it all for the Nittany Lions: Believe the hype!

Garner hit the 3-pointer that brought rapper and reality star Flavor Flav to his feet and helped send Penn State on its way to an NIT title in an 82-66 victory over Utah on Thursday night.

The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (26-13) also knocked off No. 1 seed Notre Dame in the tournament en route to winning their first NIT title since 2009.

"This means the whole world to me right now ," Flavor Flav said.

They were pretty pumped in Happy Valley, too.

"I think we set the standard," Garner said. "We preach defense and rebounding, but now we have something we can always go to. We won something. We're champions."

Flavor Flav, member of the seminal `80s rap group Public Enemy, sang along to "Fight the Power" as it blasted in the Garden and had the PSU student section chanting "Flav! Flav! Flav!" as the Nittany Lions pulled away for a program-defining championship under coach Pat Chambers.

Lamar Stevens scored 28 points, Josh Reaves had 18 and Tony Carr had 15 points and 14 assists for Penn State.

Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center has a long-standing reputation as one of the dreariest arenas in college basketball. Penn State fans, from rappers to silver-haired alumni, packed the Garden all the way to the last row of the upper deck.

Penn State football coach James Franklin, who led the program to a Pinstripe Bowl victory in 2014, was in the house. Flavor Flav stole the show a few rows behind the PSU bench. Wearing a T-shirt that read "33 Shep Garner," Flavor Flav danced all night in his seat. Flavor Flav popped his T-shirt and raised the roof in the same arena where Public Enemy once tore down the house.

"I think we've proven to teams across the country that Penn State basketball is here to stay," Chambers said.

The clutch moment came in the third quarter when Garner -- who became Penn State's career 3-point leader in the tournament run -- hit a 3 for his first basket of the game and a 49-41 lead that had the fans going wild.

"To see my cousin break records, win trophies, all that, he deserves it," Flavor Flav said. "The whole team deserves it."

Reaves hit a crashing layup on a three-point play that stretched the lead to 11 and Stevens wagged his tongue toward the PSU fans on a jumper that helped blow open the game.

Flavor Flav raised an arm in the air when Garner sank a 3 early in the fourth for a 68-49 edge that all but put this one away.

The final minutes certainly put some flava in your ear -- half the MSG crowd chanted "We Are!" and the other half bellowed "Penn State!"

Yeah, boy!

Sedrick Barefield hit six 3s and scored 22 points for second-seeded Utah (23-12).

"You're always kind of watching the NIT and maybe you think of it as the consolation prize or whatever," Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said. "They have no idea how cool this was for us."

Big picture
Utah: David Collette, Justin Bibbins and Tyler Rawson are among the seniors moving on. ... Bibbins scored 15 points.

Penn State: Stevens reached 1,000 career points was named most outstanding player. ... Chambers, a former assistant coach under Jay Wright at Villanova, took over in 2011 and has struggled to find any kind of regular success. The Nittany Lions have never made the NCAA Tournament under Chambers and they'll have just their second winning record in seven seasons. But Penn State's 26 wins are second-highest in program history. The Nittany Lions won a record 27 games in 2008-09.

Big crowd
The 11,175 fans at MSG were the most for an NIT final since 2005.

"And you say we're a football school," Chambers cracked.

Something different
The NIT was a bit of a mad scientist in the college basketball lab. The game featured four 10-minute quarters. The tournament also implemented the FIBA 3-point line (22 feet, 1.75 inches), NBA-width lane of 16 inches, and a 20-second shot clock following offensive rebounds.

Penn State dominates Mississippi State to reach NIT title game

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Penn State dominates Mississippi State to reach NIT title game

BOX SCORE

NEW YORK -- Nearly a month after Penn State was bounced out of the Big Ten Tournament, the Nittany Lions are back at Madison Square Garden with another chance to win a championship.

Tony Carr scored 21 points, Shep Garner added 18 while breaking the school record for career 3-pointers and Penn State routed Mississippi State 75-60 in the National Invitation Tournament semifinals Tuesday night.

"Of course we were a little disappointed not to make the (NCAA) Tournament, but we made another goal," Garner said. "We saw we were in the NIT and our goal was to get to New York and win it. That's what everyone wants to do. We put ourselves in position to do so."

The fourth-seeded Nittany Lions (25-13) will play No. 2 seed Utah for the title Thursday night at Madison Square Garden.

After the score was tied 9-all, Penn State ended the first quarter on a 9-2 run. From there, the Nittany Lions opened the second with a 19-0 spurt capped by Garner's 3 off an assist from Carr to make it 37-11.

With football coach James Franklin cheering from the stands, Penn State went up 42-23 at halftime and led by as many as 27.

Mississippi State (25-12) wasn't able to get within 20 again until there was 7:56 left in the game. Abdul Ado's dunk made it 65-47, but that was the closest the Bulldogs got before the waning moments.

"We were really impatient," Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. "Once we started falling behind, we got anxious and we were shooting quick. Quick, bad shots and it just like, snowballed."

Tyson Carter scored 19 points off the bench to lead No. 4 seed Mississippi State. Ado had 13 points and seven rebounds.

Lamar Stevens scored 17 for Penn State, which shot 11 of 20 from 3-point territory. Carr had six assists and five rebounds.

Big picture
Penn State: While the Nittany Lions would have preferred to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011, they made the NIT for the first time under seventh-year coach Pat Chambers. Penn State's last trip to the NIT title game was in 2009, when it beat Baylor for the crown. The school's only other appearance in the final was a loss to Minnesota in 1998.

Mississippi State: With just one senior on the roster, the Bulldogs will return most of their team and have something positive to build off as they try to move up the rankings in the rugged SEC next season.

Record producer
With his six 3-pointers, Garner broke Penn State's record for 3s in an NIT along with the school mark of 332 held by Pete Lisicky (1995-98). Garner also had six 3s in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal loss to Purdue, giving him 12 in his last two games at Madison Square Garden and 334 for his career.

"They say the record is an individual record, but I've had a lot of teammates that had a lot to do with the record," Garner said. "A lot of people that set screens for me to get me open, break passes to them, they put it right on the button for me and I just finish the job. That's a team record. It's a lot of people that had stuff to do with it. I tip my hat to my teammates and my coaches to put me in a position to do something special like that."

Up next
Penn State: Will try to win the second NIT championship in school history when it faces Utah (23-11), which beat Western Kentucky 69-64 in the first semifinal.

Mississippi State: Starts preparing for a promising 2018-19 season.