Patrick Chambers and Fran McCaffery go way back. Both went to high school in Philadelphia and then stayed in the city to play college basketball.
Later, each would begin college-coaching careers in their hometown. McCaffery started as an assistant in 1982 at his alma mater Pennsylvania, and Chambers in 2004 as director of basketball operations at Villanova.
Now, both are trying to rebuild programs in the Big Ten, though they are at different stages of that process.
“He’s done a great job,” Chambers, who played at Philadelphia Textile and at Episcopal Academy, said of McCaffery. “Great coach, great human being. A lot of background between Franny and I.
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“He went to Penn and I had two brothers go to Penn. His wife’s sister was in my brother’s movie. So a lot of connections, a lot of Kevin Bacon ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ here.”
Chambers’ brother, Tim, wrote and directed the film “ The Mighty Macs” in 2009.
The two Philly coaches will meet tonight when Penn State takes on Iowa at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.
McCaffery, who went to La Salle high school, is in year three of his rebuild of the Hawkeyes’ program. Last season, he led an 18-win team to an NIT tournament victory over second-seeded Dayton, the school’s first postseason win since 2003.
This season, Iowa (13-7, 2-5 Big Ten) has relied on a youthful lineup but still managed to find ways to compete with top-ranked teams in the conference. They even surprised previously unbeaten Wisconsin 70-66 after the Badgers upset No. 12 Illinois and No. 2 Indiana.
They’re led in scoring by 6-foot-6-junior Roy Devyn Marble’s 14.4 points per game. Aaron White, a 6-foot-8-sophomore, is dangerous down low at 13.4 points per game and 53 percent shooting from the field.
White scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds when Iowa nearly knocked off No. 5 Indiana 69-65.
Perhaps the most intriguing matchup of the night will come between Penn State’s redshirt sophomore D.J. Newbill and Iowa freshman Mike Gesell.
Both have been playing out of position this season for their respective teams.
Gesell, a 6-foot-1 guard, started the season at the point but eventually switched to shooting guard.
“The thing about Mike some people don’t how hard it is to do what he’s doing,” McCaffery said during the Big Ten teleconference this week.
McCaffery moved Gesell to the wing to make room for fellow freshman Anthony Clemmons. Gesell has taken to the switch but still sees time at the point. He scored a game-high 18 points mostly at lead guard in the Hawkeyes’ overtime loss to Purdue on Sunday.
“He’s really just attacked this thing with a very professional approach,” McCaffery said. “He’s starting on a big ten team as a freshman, he’s playing two positions, we ask him to score and get us into our offense.”
It’s a story D.J. Newbill can relate to.
Newbill took over facilitating duties when Tim Frazier went down in November. He leads Penn State (8-12, 0-8 Big Ten) in scoring (15.5) and assists (four) and is slowly becoming a better floor general.
Newbill said he’s gotten more comfortable calling his own plays during games. It’s a skill he says his coach helped foster through hours of film work. He’s coming off a six-assist-one-turnover game against the Buckeyes.
“Well when I first started it was kind of like I was just doing whatever coach wanted me to do,” Newbill said. “But I think now I’ve been around him more and we’ve been watching film and breaking a lot of stuff down. I even helped put in a few new offensive plays.
“He said, ‘You’re my point guard so you have to be that guy on the court. It can’t just always be me. You don’t always have to look at me to make a call, just call it and we’ll run with it,’" Newbill continued. “And I think I’m just getting more comfortable reading situations in the game.”
Some of those reads will undoubtedly be designed for more of his teammates to get involved. Penn State has not had a double-figure scorer besides Newbill and Jermaine Marshall since conference play began.
Chambers said he thinks his team is close to getting over the hump if others on the team can step up. The Nittany Lions hung close with No. 18 Michigan State (81-72) before a disappointing loss to Nebraska (68-64).
They were pasted by then-No.7 Indiana 72-49, and fell short against No. 14 Ohio State 65-51.
If Penn State is to end its current eight-game losing streak and get a conference win, its best chance might be over the next four games. They will face Iowa twice, Purdue and Nebraska — none are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.