Last week, we dove headfirst into the Rutgers versus Penn State debate by giving a slight edge in the head coaching department to Steve Pikiell and the Scarlet Knights.
But in college athletics, being a good X’s and O’s coach can only take you so far. Your stability as a viable program is almost exclusively tied to the level of talent you’re able to attract to your institution.
And while landing a once-in-a-lifetime generational talent is all fine and dandy, the great teams are able to rinse-and-repeat its way year-in-and-year-out to the top of the recruiting rankings.
So with that in mind who has the advantage when it comes to recruiting alone?
I’m glad you asked.
When Pat Chambers took over Penn State basketball back in 2011, the program’s recruiting strategy resembled that of a dog chasing its tail in that they had no plan, direction, or momentum.
For years, it seemed like John Chaney, Phil Martelli, Jay Wright, and Fran Dunphy had declared that the floor in Philadelphia was lava, as the Nittany Lions never even bothered to sniff around the Keystone State’s most fertile amateur basketball region.
Instead, the program scoured the country for under-recruited and unheralded players, tying its future to the hopes that a few would exceed their pre-college prognosis.
But almost immediately, Chambers bucked this trend and made his recruiting strategy known by acquiring the services of Philadelphia native D.J. Newbill. The Southern Miss transfer was a necessary player for a program in transition, but more importantly, became the first piece of Chambers’ Brotherly Love recruiting pipeline.
Fast-forward to present times and the influx of players Chambers has convinced to trade Wawa for Sheetz is a big reason (okay, the only reason) the head coach is on the verge of a contract extension despite having never made the NCAA Tournament during his seven years in Happy Valley.
In D.J. Newbill, Shep Garner, Mike Watkins, Tony Carr, and Lamar Stevens, one could argue that Chambers’ work in Philadelphia has led to five of the greatest Nittany Lions in program history agreeing to call State College home.
Furthermore, when not in the land of Tastykakes and Cheesesteaks, Chambers has turned his attention to the D.C., Maryland, Virginia metro area, planting a Penn State flag in the DMV’s AAU basketball scene.
From our Nation’s Capital, he’s secured the commitments of Josh Reaves, and incoming 4-star recruits Myles Dread and Rasir Bolton, both of whom could play a key role in replacing the production of the aforementioned Carr and Garner.
And while the individual names and accolades of his recruits is impressive in their own right, it’s the continual upward momentum of Chambers’ classes that deserve the real praise.
In 2014, Penn State had the 101st nationally ranked recruiting class, which was good enough for 13th in the Big Ten. A year later? Chambers moved the needle for the Lions with a class ranked 41st nationally and 8th in the conference. And a year after that? Just the greatest class in Penn State history with a 26th national ranking and top 5 class in the Big Ten.
Skeptics, however, might then point to a decline in the Lions 2017 class that, on paper, looked like a step backwards for Penn State. But Chambers was super late to the dance that year thanks to a few transfers that opened up scholarships late and still managed to uncover what looks to be two hidden gems in Jamari Wheeler and John Harrar.
But wait, there’s more! Looking into the future, Chambers has the Lions in on two of the biggest grad transfers for this upcoming season in Albany guard Joe Cremo and Illinois forward Michael Finke, the latter of which will be on campus this weekend for the Blue-White spring football game.
And on top of that, he’s back to work in Philadelphia, heavily recruiting 4-star player Seth Lundy. Not only would the 6-foot-6 swing forward represent another big Brotherly Love get for Chambers, but he’d be the 5th Roman Catholic High School prospect to make the move to State College, following in the footsteps of Shep Garner, Tony Carr, Naz Bostick, and Lamar Stevens.
So yeah, that’s a really long winded way of saying recruiting stability is good for the Nittany Lions.
Over along the banks of the Raritan River, things are equally as impressive, albeit with less of a sample size.
Since taking over the program in 2016, Steve Pikiell’s recruiting class rankings follow a very similar trend line to that of the Nittany Lions.
His first class, which produced serviceable rotation players in Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi was ranked a ho-hum 103rd nationally and 11th in the Big Ten. That class, however, was followed up by a 63rd (10th in conference) ranked 2017 class that included four 3-star recruits, chief among them being guard Geo Baker.
Not letting up, Pikiell’s incoming freshmen class looks to be his best yet, with 4-star guard Montez Mathis headlining a group that’s currently ranked 40th in the country and 9th in the Big Ten. This class also includes a premier JUCO transfer in Shaq Carter, who chose the Scarlet Knights over offers from Xavier, Auburn, LSU, and Purdue, among six other Division 1 programs.
Looking forward to next year, Rutgers has its sights set on making two splash’s in the New York-New Jersey metro area as it pursues 3-star Garden State forward Paul Mulcahy and 5-star (!) New Jersey native Bryan Antoine.
Pikiell and his staff have their work cut out for them as Antoine is the 7th ranked prospect in the country and thus can pretty much choose where he wants to play. But Rutgers just being in the mix, similarly to when Pat Chambers got current Duke-commit Cam Reddish to campus on an unofficial visit, is a significant step in its own right.
Even more interesting for these two programs, however, is as their status as destinations for recruits continues to independently rise, their relative proximity to each other could lead to a few head-to-head recruiting battles.
As it stands right now, at least one prospect in the class of 2019, Joe Girard III, is being heavily recruited by both schools. The combo guard out of New York has already taken a visit to State College and lists Rutgers among the teams that he’s heard from the most. Should either the Lions or Knights land his services next year, it’ll be quite the feather in their respective cap and cause for some bragging rights over the other.
Okay, but enough chit-chat. Who has the edge when it comes to recruiting stability?
Steve Pikiell has done a great job elevating Rutgers and all signs point to him developing his program as a major player in the Scarlet Knights backyard.
However, Patrick Chambers has already laid that groundwork and has turned the Nittany Lions into a real thorn in the Big 5’s side.
Yes, the 2019 class is ripe with Philadelphia talent and it’s important for Chambers to land a major prospect from his recruiting base. But all signs point to that being more than a realistic possibility for the Lions thanks to its newly established track record.