Monday, March 14, 2011

Nittany Lion Cagers

Is the word "cagers" still used to represent basketball players? When I attended college at Penn State I was introduced to the term, but I haven't heard it used much since. In case you're curious—which I was—in the early days of the sport, the court was literally enclosed in a cage, which made for a much rougher game than exists today.

In honor of my alma mater, Penn State, and their men's basketball team's return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in ten years, I present you with the top five players to come out of the program since my days at the school, a quarter-century ago.

Honorable mentions: Pete Lisicky (1994-98) Calvin Booth (1995-99), Titus Ivory (1999-2001) Geary Claxton (2005-08), Jamelle Cornley (2006-09)

5. John Amaechi (1992-95)

Amaechi began his college career at Vanderbilt, but transferred to Penn State after his freshman year. In three years in Happy Valley, the team's first three in the Big Ten, he averaged 15.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots in 84 games, and was twice named a first-team Academic All-American. The team improved from their dismal Big Ten debut (7-20, last place in 1992-93) to 21-11 and a third-place NIT Tournament finish in his senior year.

Amaechi went on to play 294 games in five NBA seasons for three teams, but is best known as the first openly gay NBA player, coming out several years after his retirement.

4. Tom Hovasse (1985-89)

Hovasse was the star of the Nittany Lions basketball team during my time as a student there. The 6'8" forward was a four-year starter who averaged 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds over 99 games in four seasons. The team improved from 12-17 and 8th place in the Atlantic 10 in his freshman year to 20-12 and an NIT berth in his senior year. I traveled with friends to witness their second round game at Villanova, which unfortunately was the final game of their season, and of Hovasse's Penn State career, a 76-67 defeat.

He would have to wait six years before making his professional debut with the Atlanta Hawks in 1994-95. Signed in October and released in November, he played four minutes in two games in a very brief NBA career.

3. DeRon Hayes (1989-93)'s College Basketball pages—which I used for most of the statistics cited in this post—are seriously lacking information from the years that Hayes played at Penn State, but one of his teams provided me with my most memorable Penn State basketball moment.

The 1990-91 team qualified for Penn State basketball's first NCAA tournament in more than a quarter-century. The 13th-seeded Nittany Lions pulled off a stunning first round upset over 4th-seeded UCLA—a team that included six future NBA players—in Syracuse's Carrier Dome.

I was a recent college graduate living in Syracuse at the time, and was lucky to be in attendance at that game. That game still stands as the only time Penn State and UCLA have ever met in men's basketball, so the Nittany Lions can proudly say that they lead the all-time series with the most storied program in college basketball history.

According to a site called PSU Hoops Alumni Tracker, Hayes scored 1570 points in his Penn State career, which was 4th on their all-time list as of four years ago (so probably 6th now, with Talor Battle and Jamelle Cornley having since passed him). He was also named Atlantic 10 Freshman on the year for 1989-90 and All-Atlantic Ten in 1990-91. He never played in the NBA, but instead has enjoyed a successful career in the European Leagues, where apparently he's still playing.

2. Joe Crispin (1997-2001)

Crispin led the team to their last NCAA tournament appearance in 2000-01, a run that ended with a Sweet 16 loss to this year's first-round opponent, Temple. He and his younger brother, Jon, teamed up to make Penn State's back court one of its strongest ever, although Jon would transfer to UCLA following Joe's senior season.

Joe Crispin is Penn State's third all-time leading scorer, with 1976 points. In 126 games over four years, he averaged 15.7 points and 3.8 assists. Most importantly, though, he led the Nittany Lions to two Big Ten tournament victories—including an upset of Michigan State, a team that went on to make the NCAA Final Four—and two NCAA tournament wins, the highlight being a round-of-32 defeat of North Carolina.

Crispin had a slighly longer cup of coffee in the NBA than Hovasse, playing 21 games for the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns in 2001-02, before moving on to European basketball for the nine years since.

1. Talor Battle (2007-11)

This year's star, Talor Battle, became Penn State's all-time leading scorer with his game-winning shot against Wisconsin in the Big Ten quarter-finals. He then scored 25 in their semi-final victory over Michigan State. He's connected for 2190 points in his four-year career, averaging 16.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 133 games.

In addition to leading the team to their first trip to the NCAA tournament since the Joe Crispin-led 2000-01 squad, Battle teamed with seniors Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle to pace the Lions' run to the NIT championship in his sophomore year of 2008-09. He was named first-team All-Big Ten in both his sophomore and senior seasons, while being honored as a second-teamer in his junior year.

Battle's story, of course, continues on Thursday night, with the Nittany Lions cagers matching up against Temple in the opening round of the West regional.

It just occurred to me that I could make a starting five from the names on this list: Battle and Crispin at guards, Hayes and Hovasse at forwards (although Hovasse is hardly the prototypical power forward), Amaechi at center. Also, the honorable mentions fit perfectly into a second-team squad: Lisicky and Ivory are the guards, Claxton and Cornley the forwards, Booth the center.

So, there you have it. The All-Penn State Nittany Lion basketball team covering the period of 1985-2011.

No comments:

Post a Comment