SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — It would have been close to impossible for anyone to visit the Hoophall Classic and not leave with a strong sense of how closely basketball and this hardscrabble city in Western Massachusetts are intertwined. A sign bearing the message “Welcome to the Birthplace of Basketball” is displayed prominently atop the main entrance to the white dome that houses Springfield College’s home court, whose namesake, James Naismith, is credited with inventing the sport. Event employees wore maroon and white T-shirts with the word “birthplace” on the front. A rectangular poster featuring an old photograph of Naismith holding a ball in one hand and a peach basket—used in the first known game of basketball—in the other is plastered on a white concrete wall behind one end of the court.
But Springfield isn’t just where the sport was created; it’s where the careers of its best players and coaches are formally celebrated. The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is less than 10 minutes away, and a fact sheet in a folder distributed here indicates the Hall “maintains a strong partnership” with Springfield College. The Hall’s logo, a basketball rimmed with a gold circle noting its location, can be spotted around the arena. In Springfield, the Hoophall classic is something like a waypoint on the basketball spectrum. The event, now in its 15th year, convenes some of the most talented players in the country. It is not unreasonable to suggest that one day, some of them could return to be recognized as one of the sport’s greats.This year, the Hoophall welcomed pieces of the upper crust of one of the best recruiting classes in recent memory. Five of the top 10 players in the class, according to Scout.com, competed. Kentucky’s John Calipari, North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Texas’s Shaka Smart were among the coaches in attendance. But one of the coaches who was most invested in the action was Penn State’s Pat Chambers.
The Nittany Lions’ season has unfolded pretty much as expected. A team SI.com projected to place 12th in the Big Ten has lost four of first its six conference games and has an 11–8 overall record. They rank 128th in point differential when adjusted for strength of schedule, 136th in kenpom.com’s database, they’ve already lost to Duquesne and Radford and any optimism over their chances of clinching the program’s fourth NCAA tournament berth since 1965 has long since dissipated. It’s ugly stuff, and a turnaround this season seems unlikely.
The good news? There’s cause to believe the Nittany Lions’ will get better soon, namely a 2016 recruiting class rated higher than any Penn State has landed in more than a decade. The Nittany Lions are No. 16 in the country and No. 2 in the Big Ten, behind only Michigan State, according to Scout.com. At the Hoophall Classic, three of the four of the four players in the group—Roman Catholic (Pa.) High teammates, shooting guard Nazeer Bostick, power forward Lamar Stevens and point guard Tony Carr—had the chance to show Nittany Lions fans what they could do. (Penn State’s fourth commit, center Joe Hampton is sitting out his senior season at Oak Hill Academy with a torn ACL.)
A quick glance at the box score from their performance would unsettle some of them. Roman Catholic, was demolished, 74–44, by Montverde (Fla.) Academy, which is No. 3 in the USA Today Super 25 Expert Rankings. Carr committed five turnovers while scoring four points on 2-of-10 shooting before being benched in the second half. Stevens went 0-for-6 against a team featuring several elite high-major prospects, including two five-star power forwards in the class of 2018, Silvio De Sousa and E.J. Montgomery, and four-star 2016 center Bruno Fernando.
Still, it would be silly to get worked up over one game against a clearly superior opponent. Carr, Stevens and Bostick ran into a buzzsaw—a loaded team with more length and athleticism than Roman Catholic knew what to do with. The 30-point scoreline (and highlights) will be largely forgotten by the time they arrive in Happy Valley later this year. When they do, this is what you should expect:
Stevens can play on the wing and hold up size-wise at the four (6'7", 220 pounds), welcomes contact and is adept at rebounding in traffic and attacking the rim. Hampton, who decommitted from the Nittany Lions last March before recommitting in May, is renowned for his interior scoring ability. Bostick is a strong athlete who does his best work on the defensive end. And Carr is a capable distributor who handles the ball well and would stand out more if he weren't in such a deep class of point guards.
“I think Tony has good size, length, quickness for the position,” Scout.com recruiting analyst Evan Daniels said of Carr. “[He is] a guy that can facilitate the offense and also has potential as a defender. The next step in his game is adding a jump shot and adding some range.” Daniels added of Stevens, “First thing that comes to mind when you talk about Lamar Stevens is toughness. He’s a physical, bruising, combo forward, and he’s a guy that can get a lot of stuff done in the paint.”
Together, the four prospects give Penn State a promising nucleus that should be able to help out right away. At the very least, their addition—following a 2015 class that included a four-star shooting guard and a high-upside three-star center prospect—will provide an infusion of talent and athleticism on the order of what the Big Ten’s best teams trot out on a nightly basis.
How was Chambers able to convince prospects with scholarship offers from the likes of Georgetown, Indiana, Maryland and Villanova to join a moribund program with a poor on-court track record and a football-first reputation? As a former staffer at Villanova under Jay Wright, Chambers had developed relationships with coaches in Philadelphia (associate head coach Keith Urgo also coached under Wright).
Carr said he picked the Nittany Lions because of the opportunity to “try to make history” at a program not known for its basketball prowess. “I just felt like I just wanted to go somewhere where I would be remembered,” Carr told SI.com. “I could have went to a lot of traditional programs, but I just would have been just another player.” Stevens, who made his verbal commitment after Bostick, Hampton and Carr, said he thinks he, Carr, Bostick and Hampton can help “change that culture” at Penn State. He added, “I just wanted to go somewhere where I could start a tradition.”
While Penn State lags behind Villanova and other in-state programs in terms of both national prestige and recent success, Chambers’ ties in Philadelphia could prove critical for the Nittany Lions as they seek to upgrade their roster in 2017 and beyond. It’s encouraging that Chambers and his staff were able to compile a banner class even though Penn State has been a virtual nonfactor in the Big Ten since he arrived there prior to the 2011–12 season. Carr and his classmates have the potential to change that.