STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- When Mike Watkins first arrived at Penn State, the redshirt freshman was taken aback by the quiet. The central Pennsylvania campus sounded so different from the noisy streets of South Philadelphia.
While Watkins’ surroudings have changed, his drive has not. And that drive represents an unspoken bond among him and the five other Philadelphia-area natives on the Penn State men’s basketball roster this season.
“We all have the same animal in us to play hard, to go that extra mile,” Watkins said. “If I’m tired and I know I can’t go that extra five minutes, I’m going to give my all until I probably pass out on this court.”
As Pat Chambers, a Newtown Square native, enters his sixth season as head coach, the expectations surrounding his team are higher than ever. Much of that hype has come from a strong freshman class that includes a trio of Roman Catholic graduates: guards Nazeer Bostick and Tony Carr, and forward Lamar Stevens.
At media day on Tuesday, Chambers said he has been impressed with the freshmen’s work ethic and intensity on and off the court.
Chambers has been particularly impressed with 6-foot-7, 218-pound Stevens.
“We’re moving him all over the place, and he has earned it,” Chambers said, noting Stevens is shooting the ball much better than he did in high school.
Chambers’ team goals this year include increasing tempo and scoring a minimum of 80 points per game. The little things - details and fundamentals - will be stressed, he said.
While basketball games on campus have not been well-attended in recent years, Chambers hopes success on the court will translate to more fans regularly coming out to the Bryce Jordan Center.
Chambers said ticket sales are already up for this season, and the Penn State-Michigan State game on Jan. 7 at the Palestra is already sold out.
The 6-foot-4, 187-pound Bostick said he can’t wait for that matchup, an opportunity to play in a place where he watched many games in high school.
Carr, a 6-foot-3, 198-pounder, said he hopes his recruiting class will start a trend and perhaps encourage more of the Philadelphia area’s top talent to commit to Penn State. That weighed on his college decision last year.
“I just felt like I could come in here,” Carr said, “and just kind of start something new and lead the way, make this a powerhouse.”
“It is something Shep started,” Stevens said.
Junior Shep Garner, another Roman graduate who averaged 14 points last season, said he was excited to see the freshmen from his alma mater develop. He laughed when asked if he could provide scouting reports for each, saying it was inside information.
For Watkins, a 6-9, 246-pound forward and graduate of the Phelps School, this year will be particularly special. Watkins was not cleared by the NCAA to play last season, news that he said sent him into two weeks of depression but ultimately made him stronger.
He credits his mother, Rebecca, a single parent, and his teammates for helping him get through a tough redshirt year.
When Watkins thinks about Nov. 4, Penn State’s season-opening matchup with Lock Haven, he gets emotional. His mother does, too.