As the clock read all zeros last Saturday, the Bryce Jordan Center was silent. Penn State fans had just witnessed Rutgers earn its first Big Ten road win in program history on the Nittany Lions’ own floor by a score of 70-68.
In the effort, the Scarlet Knights battered the Nittany Lions on the board, snatching 39 rebounds to the Blue and White’s 27. Additionally concerning was the fact that Julian Moore, Penn State’s most experienced big man, tallied a whopping zero rebounds and zero points on 0-for-4 shooting in 17 minutes. In the physical, grueling slate that is Big Ten conference play, those numbers won’t yield positive results for the already inexperienced team.
Luckily, two budding stars have emerged into the fold. Highly-touted true freshman forward Lamar Stevens and redshirt freshman center Mike Watkins have been key components of the core of Pat Chambers’ team. Yet, Stephens is only 6-foot-7, and Watkins must find a way to remain on the floor for extended periods of time like Stevens and fellow freshman Tony Carr have proven themselves capable of doing.
While the flexibility of players such as Josh Reaves and Payton Banks and the increased role for Nazeer Bostick, the Nittany Lions have made it work with those two freshmen paired with Moore — a lineup that showed up in a big way in Tuesday night’s triumph over No. 21 Maryland. However, this Penn State team will be nothing more than an NIT-hopeful at best over the next two seasons barring dramatic changes. Results like these would warrant an even warmer seat along the sidelines for a coach like Pat Chambers who’s already feeling some pressure to perform.
Enter an ACC-experienced 7-footer with solid offensive skills in need of a new home following a coaching change at his former school.
That’s exactly where Satchel Pierce was left off following James Johnson’s firing from Virginia Tech after Pierce’s freshman campaign. Just days after the firing in the midst of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, the Hokies brought in former Marquette coach Buzz Williams to lead them into the grinding ACC schedule.
Despite being recruited by Johnson, Pierce was one of several Marquette players to get a release from their letter of intent in order to follow Coach Williams to Virginia Tech in what became a complex turnover process for both programs. The massive moves involved Williams’ Marquette recruits and players transferring away from Marquette (many to follow him at Tech) and Hokie commits and players transferring away from the school. At the end, 14 players from Marquette and Virginia Tech would change their allegiance.
In his freshman year in southwest Virginia, the former Kiski School center made a solid splash, appearing in 31 games and starting seven. The young center even put up two points in an eight minute outing during Tech’s 61-58 loss to Penn State. More notably, Pierce played an important role in a game against Miami, pouring in 13 points and tallying seven rebounds, both career highs. A 48-percent shooter from the field, Pierce was thought to have a lot of offensive upside heading into his sophomore season. Widespread breakout success was imminent for the Barberton, Ohio-native.
Then, nothing happened. When Pierce was supposed to be taking the ACC by storm, he was instead riding the pine, his spot taken by the likes of USF transfer Zack Leday and top recruits Chris Clarke and Kerry Blackshear Jr. Instead of his 13 minutes-per-game average rising from his first year, it dropped to just over six minutes per contest. Pierce appeared in just 20 games despite Virginia Tech’s nine-win increase and NIT berth, though the sophomore did make 63.2 percent of his field goal attempts and 80 percent of his free throws. It was clear that Williams had brought in his own Virginia Tech-branded cavalry, and Pierce, along with several other players, were no longer in his plans.
Pierce visited Georgia Southern before coming up to Happy Valley early last May. By the next day, he had already cancelled future visits to Baylor and UNLV and told Chambers that he finally felt at home.
“As soon as I told him, he jumped up and gave me a big hug and the rest of the coaching staff came running in and gave me a hug as well, so it was great,” said Pierce to the Centre Daily Times last May. “It was a great experience.”
Despite having to sit out this season, Pierce was featured several times throughout Penn State Athletic’s online Youtube series profiling the basketball team entitled “UNLOCKED”, with Pierce standing out in several episodes for his work ethic and ability to run the floor despite his tall frame.
A hard-working player with size and offensive ability to put alongside the enforcing athleticism of Watkins is the answer to the most glaring of Penn State’s issues. Julian Moore, despite several years in the program to develop, has proved time and time again that he is too inconsistent and unpolished to be counted on for extended minutes. The agonizing, and yet fitting truth for Penn State basketball fans: that player is on the roster, but isn’t eligible until next season.
Satchel Pierce’s smooth mid-range game, seemingly endless length, and high work rate paired with the passionate, almost maniacal play of Mike Watkins will keep opponents off of the boards, out of the paint, and constantly gassed in the up-tempo style that Pat Chambers runs.
More importantly, Pierce getting extended minutes with Watkins will allow Stevens to play a position with more favorable matchup (small forward) while Tony Carr and Shep Garner lock down the backcourt. This addition of a talented big body should also fire up the likes of Moore, Banks and Reaves to do better in their allotted court time since playing time will be at a premium. With all of these parts, in addition to Bostick, Terrence Samuel, and 2017 forward commit Trent Buttrick returning to the fold next season, the future can be very bright for Penn State basketball.
With just seven remaining regular season games, the 13-12 (5-7 in the Big Ten) Nittany Lions still have a decent chance of making one of the three postseason tournaments other than the Big Dance, most notably the NIT. For now, the Nittany Lions and Pat Chambers must do what they can with the players available, but rest assured Satchel Pierce’s first day eligible will be the first major step forward from a sub-.500 conference record team, to one that may potentially sneak into the bracket next fall.