It’s no secret that Penn State basketball has been going through a rough patch lately. After losing three of its last four games — albeit to very solid ball clubs — the program’s chances of potentially sneaking into the NCAA Tournament are rapidly dwindling.
The buzz that originally surround the Nittany Lions to start the season is starting to slowly fizzle away. Now, it seems as though more and more people are questioning if Pat Chambers is the right guy to lead this program to make Penn State a prominent basketball school. Nittany Lion hoops fans need to take a page from the Philadelphia Sixers’ playbook and trust the process.
Chambers is finally starting to recruit higher-level talent to Happy Valley — more so than ever before. No doubt, this year’s recruiting class came into the season with plenty of hype. Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens are the first players in the ESPN top-100 that Chambers has successfully added during his tenure at Penn State. According to 247 Sports, the Nittany Lions haven’t signed a recruit of such caliber prior to the 2016-17 season since the database started keeping tack of recruiting rankings in 1999.
His ties to the Philadelphia area are starting to pay dividends, and that’s something that can’t be minimized just yet as he continues to tap into the city’s burgeoning talent pool. Five-star wing player Cameron Reddish — who will likely be a one-and-done player next year — took an unofficial visit to Penn State earlier this year, so the top tier talent are starting to at least give Penn State a chance. That’s important in itself, because historically the Nittany Lions wouldn’t even register on the radars of the nation’s elite players.
Chambers is fairly similar to James Franklin in ways: he’s a phenomenal recruiter that can surround himself with the right people whose in-game coaching tactics have been subject to scrutiny. Being patient with Franklin seemed to work out in Penn State’s favor this year. All he needed was extended time with the players who fit his system.
Penn State is a fairly young team — three of its main contributors are freshmen and the team has no seniors on the roster. The Nittany Lions are one of only six teams in the entire country to feature a roster with no seniors, and in such a senior-laden conference like the Big Ten, Penn State’s youth has been painfully evident in multiple games this year.
Unless you’re one of college basketball’s blue blood programs like Duke, Kentucky, or Kansas, where freshmen players becoming lottery picks in the NBA Draft is commonplace, it’s nearly impossible to be successful relying this heavily on youth like Penn State has this season. The Nittany Lions have three players with a Big Ten usage rating hovering in the top-11 — the most for a single team in that range. Penn State also leads the Big Ten in field goal attempts by freshmen with 44 percent.
This isn’t necessarily a huge issue; players like Carr, Stevens, and Mike Watkins will improve tremendously over the course of the next three years due to the experience they’re getting right now leading a team in the Big Ten. Those players just need time to develop, but there’ve been plenty of highlight-worthy moments this season that provide a glimpse down the road.
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Lamar Stevens has done a phenomenal job of getting to the rim and taking his fair share of solid mid-range looks, but just hasn’t been able to get shots to fall at a consistent rate at this stage. His 81 percent mark from the foul line shows that those shots will eventually drop once he grows more accustomed to the speed of Division I basketball.
A key factor in evaluating a coach’s effectiveness is their ability to develop players. Chambers has a done well in that area, specifically when looking at the production from Penn State’s main contributors this season compared to past years.
Junior Payton Banks has seen his shooting percentage from beyond the arc increase tremendously over the past few seasons — he’s shooting 40 percent from three-point range this season, which is good for second in the Big Ten right among qualified shooters, compared to the 32 percent clip he shot last year. Banks has been counted on more in Big Ten play and he’s delivered by making at least two threes in all but one conference game.
Josh Reaves might’ve had the biggest improvement from year to year. He shot an abysmal seven percent from long range last year — which was worst in the NCAA for players that took at least 30 attempts from beyond the arc. He’s already more than tripled his output from that area this season, and is now shooting a respectable 33 percent in Big Ten play this season. Reaves’ activeness on defense has been stood out for Penn State this year — he’s tenth in the country in steal percentage at 4.9 percent which is a significant increase from last year’s 3.5 percent.
The main thing to be optimistic about is the potential of this defense. Currently, Penn State has two players with a top-10 defensive rating in the Big Ten, with Watkins checking in at No. 3 and Reaves at No. 8. Only Wisconsin has more players with a top-10 defensive rating in the conference. The room for growth between those two, mixed with the potential defensive capabilities of Carr and Stevens, should allow this team to really lock opponents down on offense in the near future. Depth has been an issue down low this year, but there’s help waiting in the wings. Chambers will be able to add even-footer Satchel Pierce to the rotation that should give him another defensive anchor in the middle.
This team is ridiculously young; the Nittany Lions are currently in the midst of a tough stretch of games against NCAA Tournament-quality teams. This team’s flashed its potential at times, and the best part is every guy on the roster is returning next season. Maybe this isn’t the year Penn State officially lands on the map, but this season will certainly be looked back upon fondly as the foundation year the program needed to gel.
The future is bright on the hardwood in Happy Valley.