Terrence Samuel and Mike Watkins built a connection on the court while they sat out last season.
They played together at lot during practice, pushing their teammates as they prepared for games. Penn State coach Patrick Chambers and his staff noticed how well the pair complemented each other and plan to keep the guard and big man together as often as possible going into this season.
Samuel and Watkins will take the floor in the Nittany Lions’ season opener against Albany at 7 p.m. Friday at the Bryce Jordan Center after watching their teammates go 16-16 a year ago. Chambers views both players as “starters” coming off the bench.
“It gives us that fight, that hunger, that toughness that we wanted off the bench,” Chambers said.
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Samuel, a 6-foot-3 guard, spent two years at UConn before arriving at Penn State and sitting out due to NCAA transfer rules.
During his freshman season, he averaged 4.5 points per game during the NCAA tournament to help the Huskies win the national championship. After playing in every game and starting eight as a sophomore, he left UConn for Penn State.
Samuel said he used the year to focus on strengthening his weaknesses, specifically his jump shot.
“The whole year after practice, I would come extra and shoot with coach (Ross) Condon, coach (Keith) Urgo, just to improve the little things, little parts of my game,” Samuel said at the team’s media day. “Just be ready for when I can play again.”
Samuel will return to the court for his first game Friday night.
Chambers likes what he’s seen from Samuel.
“Terrence can bring a toughness that we sorely need,” Chambers said. “He can bring leadership. He’s been there. He’s done it.
“He’s been a part of a national championship team, so he can constantly remind the guys in the locker room what it’s going to take to get to that level of consistency, sustainability, success day in and day out.”
Watkins, a 6-foot-9 forward rated a four-star recruit by ESPN, took a redshirt season after not being cleared by the NCAA to play as a freshman in 2015-16.
Looking back, Watkins said he benefited from sitting out.
He learned how to manage his time in balancing basketball and classes, and he added muscle and developed his game at practice.
“If I would have played, I probably wasn’t going to be ready,” Watkins said at media day. “I probably wasn’t going to get as much time as I thought I was.”
One year later, Watkins is ready to start his career.
Chambers expects the big man to be part of a productive group off the bench.
“Our bench is thriving and that’s the way we want to keep it,” Chambers said.
Notes: Penn State’s first five games are part of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament. The Nittany Lions host Albany, Duquesne (Sunday) and Grand Canyon (Tuesday). Penn State then plays No. 1 Duke on Nov. 19 and either Cincinnati or Rhode Island on Nov. 20 in Uncasville, Conn. ... Albany is coming off a 24-9 season. ... Albany has two returning starters in forwards Mike Rowley (8.3 points per game) and Greig Stire (7.6 ppg). ... Guard Joe Cremo was the America East Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year last season. He averaged 10.5 points. ... After Thursday’s practice, Samuel, Payton Banks and Shep Garner were announced as team captains for the season.
Who: Albany at Penn State
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Bryce Jordan Center
Radio: WQWK 1450