Penn State men’s basketball is right around the corner with the regular season opening on Friday against Campbell. Pat Chambers is about to enter his seventh season as the head coach of the Nittany Lions, and he’s hoping to lead Penn State to a place it hasn’t been since 2011 — The Big Dance.
The core of this team, with an extra year of experience, should be more adept to handle the rigors of the Big Ten schedule. Chambers’ squad will rely heavily on its backcourt for numerous areas of the game: scoring, defense, leadership, and energy, just to name a few. Tony Carr and Shep Garner appear to be the entrenched starters to carry a lot of that load.
Arguably the team’s most valuable player a year ago, Carr is entering his sophomore campaign ready to embrace the leadership role Chambers has challenged him to take on. Chambers said a big point of emphasis for Carr this offseason was improving off the court, specifically as a leader.
“We really talked about leadership, consistency, facial expressions, body language. We want to try to control our emotions,” Chambers said. He referenced a few technical fouls Carr received last season, but added that it’s all part of the growth and maturation process.
Carr agreed with Chambers on the areas that he needed to improve on in the offseason. “There was definitely times last year where I lost my cool and let my emotions get the best of me,” Carr said. “I watched a whole lot of film during the offseason for things that I could do better and how I could handle situations differently, so I’ve definitely been making it a key point.”
The point guard also made it a goal of his to get bigger and stronger this offseason. Carr was able to tack on more than 20 pounds of muscle, and he noted it was all thanks to how hard his coaches and teammates pushed him throughout the course of the summer. The extra muscle is going to pay dividends this season, and it’s already shown during the team’s two exhibition games. Carr simply looks like a stronger player in all respects.
Heading into his final season at Penn State, Garner wants to make this a great year. At this point, he’s not too worried about what his legacy at Penn State will be once he leaves.
“Right now, I’m focusing on what’s in front of me. I’m trying to make this season the best season it could possibly be,” Garner said. “We’re focusing on putting the work in every day, trying to get better every day, and at the end of the season, hopefully we’re winners.”
With the departure of Payton Banks, Garner will have to be more responsible for consistently knocking down shots from the perimeter. Early results show he’s on the right track. Even though the exhibition games don’t necessarily count for anything, it’s a good litmus test to see where the team currently stands — and Garner is letting the ball fly. The senior guard launched 22 threes in the two games, connecting on ten of them. If he can shoot at that 45-percent clip, he could be in a prime position to break Penn State’s all-time three point record this season.
The third guard who will start for Chambers this year is junior Josh Reaves. Mostly known for his defensive ability, Reaves strived to improve his perimeter shooting this offseason, although he has already made noteworthy improvements since the time he arrived on campus. After shooting only 7 percent from distance his freshman year on 39 attempts, Reaves raised his three-point field goal percentage to 32 percent in his second year on campus.
The general consensus amongst the team is that Reaves is the most improved shooter on the team. If he can raise his shooting percentage again, he can become a valuable “3 and D” player for Chambers — the type of player that is becoming a hot commodity in all levels of basketball. That is, someone who can space the floor on offense by knocking down shots, and then be able to lock down the opposition on the defensive side of the ball.
Reaves also knows how to put together a solid Halloween costume:
— Penn State Hoops (@PennStateMBB) November 3, 2017
The other Roman Catholic guard on the team, Nazeer Bostick, has those within the program excited. The coaching staff genuinely feels that Bostick significantly improved his game during the offseason and is ready to contribute at a high level.
“He’s one of those guys that I think might have a breakout year for us,” Chambers said. “I think he’s going to be right there with [Reaves] as the guys that are going to do it all for us.”
Bostick was on the rise late last season, but an injury forced him to miss the end of the year. He brings a ton of athleticism to the table for this team, and will push for starter’s minutes by the end of the season. Bostick should be the first guard off the bench to start the year to bring an added boost as the sixth man.
— Penn State Hoops (@PennStateMBB) November 6, 2017
Freshman Jamari Wheeler will strive for minutes as the back-up point guard behind Carr. Chambers did show off an interesting dynamic to the rotation in the exhibition games. For multiple stretches, Carr and Wheeler shared the floor. This kind of lineup can allow for multiple slashers on the floor at once, and can help open up wide open shots for Garner from outside.
The team has been rallying around the energy Wheeler brings to the table. It’s an infectious state of mind that resonates with the rest of the team to make them work harder.
“[Wheeler’s] got the speed of Tim Frazier. He’s got toughness beyond his years. He’s not a typical freshman,” Chambers said. “And he competes. It’s the best thing that’s happened to Tony Carr. He gets after Tony Carr from the time he walks in to practice until the time it ends.”
At the end of the day, Garner summed up the general feeling around the locker room heading into the season.
“I think this team, because we’re all so close, it makes it much easier on the basketball court. We genuinely love each other. We genuinely want to see each other do great,” Garner said. “There’s no hiccups; everyone’s pulling in the same direction. We want to keep our team as connected as possible so we can win as many basketball games as we can.”