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‘I’m Pretty Confident We’ll Never be Boring’: Offensive Guru, AHC Joe Crispin Looking for Penn State Basketball to Electrify

Joe Crispin and Titus Ivory during the magical run to the Sweet 16 in 2001.

The number one way for Penn State basketball or any other sports team to generate interest is to win. 

But arguably the number two way is to be exciting. 

Joe Crispin knows all about exciting basketball.

As a player at Penn State, Crispin liked to shoot. A lot. It worked well for him. More than two decades after playing his last college game, Crispin’s still fourth on the school’s all-time scoring list, ending his career just 14 points shy of 2,000. Now, he’s not sure if any of the current Penn State players like to shoot it as much as he did. 

But Crispin, who sees himself as Penn State’s unofficial offensive coordinator, feels this year’s team has “a lot of different weapons.”

“I’m focused on offense,” Crispin told NSN at Penn State’s local media day Monday in the Bryce Jordan Center. “The joke is when you come into my office, we’re talking about how to score. Whereas, for coach (Jamal) Brunt, he’s more focused on the defense and if we’re presenting something before practice, that’s how it usually operates. My joke is always ‘I don’t remember any team when I was a free agent (coach) hiring me for my defensive prowess. I’ve usually gotten paid to help teams score, so I’m probably going to stick with that for the rest of my life and I’m confident we can do so here.”

Zach Hicks will be a big part of what Crispin and Penn State are trying to do. 

Despite being a 6-foot-8 forward, Hicks is a shooter. 

In two seasons at Temple, Hicks shot more than 36 percent from three. 

Last season, Temple ranked 172nd in the country in possessions per game, so Hicks is entering a different world when it comes to pace, and he’s excited about it.

“I think it’s perfect for me,” Hicks told NSN, “because I like to shoot threes. I want to get up and down the court, kick ahead, stuff like that, so I’m really looking forward to playing in this type of offense.”

Something became apparent almost instantly when Hicks realized the type of style he was going into.

“One of the things I definitely noticed was ‘I have to get in shape quick,’ because coach ain’t letting up,” Hicks said. “He wants to get up and down the court. He wants to come at people, stuff like that. So that’s one of the major things I definitely noticed. I had to get in shape quick.” 

Puff Johnson came to Penn State after three seasons at North Carolina. 

When he started his college career, Roy Williams was the head coach. 

The Tar Heel legend retired after Johnson’s freshman season, succeeded by assistant Hurbert Davis. 

Johnson is comfortable with this style because he feels it’s similar to what Williams installed at UNC.

“Real fast-paced,” Johnson told NSN, “get up and down (the court), score in transition type of offense coach Williams recruited me to when I committed to North Carolina. I feel like getting back to that is the type of brand of basketball that I want to play since I’ve been in college and is something that I can get back to this year.”

So how would Crispin describe this offense?

“Pace,” he said. “Dynamic. You talk about football terms, it’s like more of a no-huddle approach. We’re going to organize quickly, we’re going to get into meaningful action as quickly as possible. If a guy has a shot, he’s going to take the shot. Philosophically, there’s no need to set something up just to get the same shot 20 seconds later. We believe in being on the attack, being the aggressor, and you’ll see that with the approach. And naturally, there’s a strategy, there’s a method to the madness, but it should be a pretty free-flowing dynamic.

Crispin said Penn State uses the term “self-organized.”

“We’re flowing into things we’re familiar with,” he said, “and we know how to play basketball and what we want to get to. I think our guys have done a really good job of embracing that, but I think it’s… not the norm, put it that way, in the college basketball climate. We hope to make it the norm here.”

“Not the norm” is a term Crispin’s younger brother, Jon, would agree with when it comes to this system. 

For Jon Crispin, this will be new for the Big Ten as well.

“They’ve never seen it,” Jon Crispin, who played with his older brother at Penn State for two seasons and now is a college basketball analyst for ESPN, told Nittany Sports Now soon after Joe was hired in March. “They’ve never seen anything like it. They’ve never seen pressing the way they press. They’ll never see pace and scoring the way they’ve seen. I mean, look, Iowa scores. Iowa scored over 80 points a game, but how they score is different. This is different, and it’s impossible to explain until you see it, and even then, it’s impossible to explain to someone that doesn’t really get the specifics of what they’re trying to do.”

Joe Crispin’s work has been on display for a while, but not at the Division I level. 

This style electrified at Rowan, where Crispin was the head coach from 2016-this past March. Here are Rowan’s points per game numbers from each of Crispin’s seven seasons at Rowan:

2016-17: 87.5

2017-18: 82

2018-19: 85.3

2019-20: 84.5

2021-22: 84.5

2022-23: 91.4

Penn State basketball isn’t yet a consistent contender in the Big Ten, so while Crispin, head coach Mike Rhoades and the rest of the program work to become one, playing a style that will give the paying customers their money’s worth will help build the brand. 

“I like to joke,” Crispin said, “when there’s a foot of snow on the ground and it’s twenty-five degrees out, do you want to see a game in the eighties or nineties or do you want to see a game in the fifties or sixties? I think it’s an easy answer, and I think in terms of taking this program to the next level, that’s important.”

For Crispin, this style could also help in recruiting.

“Coach (Rhoades) and I talk about this all the time,” Crispin said. “Within the Big Ten, we need to be different, and that’s going to be difference defensively, a different in approach on both ends of the court, both sides of the ball so to speak. So, yeah, I think it’s like in any line of work. If you want to get better offensive players, you need to play in a way that those offensive players want to play, and if you want to get fans excited about basketball, you want to play in a way that makes them excited. It’s not rocket science, but most aren’t doing it.”

So is there any current Penn State player that reminds Crispin of himself?

“I don’t think anybody’s willing to shoot as much as I did,” he said. “Maybe Zach (Hicks) will let it fly, but not as much off the dribble. I think Ace (Baldwin) is a really, really capable point guard. He’s more of a pass-first guy, but he’s a really capable scorer as well. So we hope to see more of that, especially on this big stage. But between Ace and Kanye (Clary), there’s pretty dynamic guards, creative. They’re on the attack. Enjoyed working with those, and then the guys off the ball. We have multiple guys who aren’t shy and love to put it up. It’s certainly the way I liked to play, so I’m not going to stop anybody from doing that from an assistant coaching standpoint.”

Although he’s now an assistant coach and not in charge of a basketball program, Crispin doesn’t feel his role is much different from an offensive standpoint. 

“The only difference in my role now is that I controlled the defense as the head coach,” Crispin said. “So we often use our defense to make offense a little easier. I think our defense and offense fit here, so there is an alignment there, but it’s still a little bit different. But philosophically, I’m working with him (Rhoades) to implement this vision that we had set for Penn State basketball. To be bold. To be different. To be aggressive.”

“We need to stick with that vision of identity and put it on the basketball court, right? So it’s not as simple as just ‘this is the way you play offense at all places,’ right? It’s ‘how does this need to be done here, what kind of vision are we setting of what we need to be as a program and as a team, and then let’s play offense accordingly. So, that’s been part of the learning process is not just about ‘what do I like and dislike?'” It’s ‘who do we want to be’ and let’s put this on the court. That’s always kind of what I’ve believed in.”

Overall, Crispin’s enjoyed working with this Penn State team.

He knows offense is his forte, and he hopes that this year’s squad will excite people. 

“We have a good group, and I’m pretty confident we’ll never be boring,” Crispin said. “That’s for sure.”

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