Pat Chambers is closing in on the start of his seventh season as head coach of the Nittany Lions, who might make their first NCAA Tournament appearance since Ed DeChellis took his group during the final season of his head coaching tenure in Happy Valley back in 2011. The Bryce Jordan Center will welcome home its Penn State squad for the start of the regular season on Friday, November 10 against Campbell.
From the get-go this preseason, Chambers has made clear the biggest two things his team needs to work on if it’s going to see success during the 2017-18 slate.
“The strength is going to have to be on the defensive side. We gave up 72-plus points [last season] and rebounding, we were one of the worst in the Big Ten,” Chambers said. “Cannot be more direct than that. We have to clean up defending and rebounding.”
The team’s achilles heel was on the boards, which led to longer defensive stands and fewer possessions, meaning its opponents were putting up more points.
While Mike Watkins had some success as a freshman — averaging 9.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game — the low post play suffered from a lack a depth, with Julian Moore serving as the only other true big man on the roster.
This year, Penn State redshirt junior transfer Satchel Pierce, a seven-footer from Virginia Tech, is finally able to get his shot after sitting out last season.
“Great hands, great feet, willing screener, communicates often and an excellent passer so, he’s going to add a dimension where those 8-0 runs, those 10-0 runs, if [Watkins] is not in the game, I’m very confident he can get us an easy one,” Chambers said. “He’s really skilled from 15-feet and in so, don’t be surprised if he’s knocking down a 15-footer and he’s a very good free throw shooter.”
“He’s going to complement [Watkins] and [Moore] very, very well.”
Each member of this potential trio on the low post has the size and experience necessary for the tough, physical tests of Big Ten play. The biggest questions now are how the three can complement each other on the roster and what changes to the rotations this will bring.
“I think I just add another presence to that lineup,” Pierce said. “I think with me we can play two bigs, so that definitely helps with our front court.”
While a bit more depth has been created on the low post, rising sophomore Lamar Stevens, one of the team’s bright spots from the front court, will have a better chance to play in a more natural role — less frequently subjected to the five-spot on the floor due to injuries, foul trouble, or fatigue from Watkins and Moore.
Stevens, one of the four players on the roster from Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School, had a few breakout performances last year in non-conference play and fared well for the team in the heart of Big Ten play. He finished his first season with team second-bests in points per game (12.7) and rebounds per game (5.5).
The 6-foot-8 likely starter can manage play away from the rim and is a force on the drive, but also has expanded his perimeter game since the end of last year.
“I worked on [my perimeter shooting]a lot in the offseason. It was a focus for our team after losing some of the guys that we lost,” said Stevens, whose team will be without one of its best three-point threats in Payton Banks after the graduate player transferred to USF for his final season of eligibility.
To start the year, Stevens is dealing with a sprained left ankle, but expects to be ready for the scrimmages in early November just prior to the start of the regular season.
The Nittany Lions also picked up a pair of incoming freshman forwards for the slate in John Harrar and Trent Buttrick.
Harrar, a 6-foot-9, Wallington, PA, native joins Pat Chambers’ squad and was featured in a couple minutes of both games during the team’s Bahamas tour. Buttrick was a winter commit to Penn State after a pair of seasons with Florida high school, the Community School of Naples. Neither are expected to play huge roles in their freshman campaigns, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Chambers is ready to redshirt them.
“I’m not going to say that [redshirting]is not in play, but right now these freshmen have really been impressive. They may not be the highly touted group, but they bring something to this team that we need,” Chambers said.
“[Harrar] with his football mentality, which is fabulous. James [Franklin] has snuck in here a few times just to get an eye on him and I said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. Four more years buddy.’ [Buttrick] has been great in pick and pop situations. The youngest of seven boys, I mean, he’s a tough kid. So they’ve really filled a great role right now.”