As he deliberated about whether he should return to Penn State for his senior season or move on to the NBA draft, Roman Catholic High graduate Lamar Stevens thought about what it would be like to play in the Palestra for his last year.
“Lamar was working me before he came back,” Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers said Thursday. “He definitely planted the seed that he would like to go back there.”
The Lions (11-2, 1-1 Big Ten) needed an opponent and it got one when Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, who played for Penn from 1980 through 1982 and attended numerous Palestra games as a youth, agreed to bring his Hawkeyes (10-3, 1-1) into the West Philadelphia cathedral. The sold-out game is Saturday and Stevens is excited.
“It’s really cool,” said Stevens, who averages a team-high 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds. “Just to have this opportunity to play in front of my family and friends and loved ones, and people that have helped me get to this point in my life, and going back with this special team that we have in my final year, is something I’m really grateful for.”
And who would have guessed that both teams would be ranked the week of the game – Penn State at No. 21, Iowa at No. 23?
Chambers, an Episcopal Academy and Philadelphia University graduate who started attending Palestra games “when (my age) was in single digits,” last coached there three years ago when the Nittany Lions defeated Michigan State.
“I thought Franny being a Penn guy for those two years, getting his kids back to the Palestra, his sons are on the team, that he might be a great option for that game,” Chambers said. “So I’m really appreciative of Franny for saying yes and allowing us to have the game at the Palestra, which is fantastic.”
Stevens, who said he’ll have close to 60 family members and friends in attendance, is one of six Penn State players from Philadelphia and surrounding areas. The numbers are high for McCaffery as well.
“I’ll have a lot of people there,” he told the Iowa athletic website, Hawkeyesports.com. “My brother will be there. All my cousins will be there. Twenty of my high school buddies are coming, and some of my former players from different places.”
The Big Ten and other conferences will be heating up this weekend, and there are some excellent matchups on the horizon:
No. 18 Florida State at No. 7 Louisville, Saturday at 2 p.m., ESPN2
One week after losing to rival Kentucky, the Cardinals (11-2, 2-0) now focus on ACC play against the experienced Seminoles (11-2, 1-1). Louisville junior forward Jordan Nwora, one of the nation’s top players, leads the ACC in scoring at 20.2 points per game. Florida State, which has won five straight, must deal with a Cardinals defense that allows 59.9 points per game and 35.8% opponent shooting.
No. 16 West Virginia at No. 4 Kansas, Saturday at 4 p.m., ESPN Plus
The Jayhawks (10-2), who were toppled from the No. 1 spot two weeks ago by Villanova, open their Big 12 schedule with a well-balanced lineup anchored in the middle by 7-foot center Udoka Azubuike. The Mountaineers (11-1) missed the NCAA Tournament last year but are back in the rankings under the veteran Bob Huggins. They had a signature win last Sunday over Ohio State.
Creighton at No. 11 Butler, Saturday at noon, Fox Sports 1
The Big East is rugged from top to bottom this season, and these two teams should be close to the top. The host Bulldogs (13-1, 1-0) blew a 23-point lead Tuesday night against St. John’s but rode their defense (53.9 points allowed per game) to gain the win. The Bluejays (12-2, 1-0) average 80 points with three deadly perimeter shooters in Mitch Ballock, Marcus Zegarowski and Ty-Shon Alexander.
No. 12 Michigan at No. 14 Michigan State, Sunday at 1:30 p.m., CBS3
The Wolverines (10-3, 1-1 Big Ten) are 3-3 since debuting at No. 4 in the Associated Press poll on Dec. 2, but two of the defeats were against ranked teams. After missing the first game of his collegiate career with a bone bruise on his left knee, All-America guard Cassius Winston scored 21 points for the Spartans (11-3, 3-0) in a win Thursday night over Illinois.
What else is happening?
Folks who want to stay up late have two chances to watch likely NCAA teams from west of the Rockies. No. 1 Gonzaga hosts Pepperdine at 10 p.m. (ESPN2) in a West Coast Conference game that gives people a chance to see Killian Tillie, a talented 6-10 forward from France who scored 22 points Thursday night in Gonzaga’s win over Portland.
At the same time, San Diego State, one of two undefeated teams left in Division I, travels to Utah State (CBS Sports Network). The Aztecs have defeated Iowa and Creighton and remain atop the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) rankings. The Aggies were ranked earlier in the season and have one of the nation’s top guards in Sam Merrill.
Expatriate of the week