Are they for real, or is this typical Nittany Lion basketball?
We know you’ve heard it plenty of times, and we’ve all been fooled almost every single one of those times. This is typically the time where the waves of criticism for Penn State basketball start crashing in.
“Penn State basketball REALLY IS climbing!” or “Penn State basketball is for real” are just a handful of the statements typically proven false, as the Nittany Lions have brought plenty of turmoil to their shootyhoop fanbase in the past few seasons. Usually, the criticism that took place after each of these Penn State teams crashed and burned was warranted.
However, with close, respectable losses to No. 16 Texas A&M in Brooklyn and NC State on the road, we’ve seen now that Penn State basketball should really be taken seriously. While Pat Chambers’ squad lost both of these games, they were both games Penn State found itself in late in the contest. In neither game were the Nittany Lions at their best, meaning an average performance was good enough for them to compete with some of the nation’s better programs.
And that, folks, is a key factor in tracking the development of Penn State’s basketball program.
When an off night can still lead to wins or can at least keep your program pushing the best talent, then the program is heading in the right direction. While it’s been a frustrating path that’s taken way too long, ESPN announcers mentioned in both of the losses that Penn State looked like a team poised for its first Big Dance since 2011.
Takeaways From The Wins
The six wins Penn State has reeled off to start the season have showcased a stingy defense, mind-blowing athleticism, and of course the talents of sophomore combo guard Tony Carr. In the loss to the Aggies, Carr tallied 21 points in just the opening half of play, finishing with 31 on the night. Carr added 29 more points against NC State, sinking seven of his last 10 shots from the field to help give Penn State a chance late in the game.
So far, Carr has averaged a whopping 21.3 points for the season. No Penn State player has averaged more than 21 points per game since 1963, although D.J. Newbill’s 20.7 points per game in 2015 came awfully close.
The defense often features a 1-2-2 press that has choked opposing offenses so far, thanks primarily to the hustle of players like Josh Reaves and Jamari Wheeler. Lamar Stevens has become a force as a secondary scoring option, adding on 25 points and seven boards of his own against Texas A&M. Mike Watkins looks quicker than ever, which is a scary thought for the 6-foot-9 sophomore big man.
The entertainment factor comes from the offense created by this defense. A plethora of turnovers has turned into plenty of and-ones and high-flying dunks that have made this Penn State team more fun to watch than any in recent memory. Stevens, Watkins, Reaves, and Nazeer Bostick have all taken turns throwing down ridiculous jams for the Nittany Lions already this season.
Coming off of a season when the Nittany Lions lost to Albany at home, the Blue and White has been able to fend off its weaker competition so far this season. The measly remainder of its non-conference schedule features a trip to George Mason as its toughest remaining competition.
However, an odd conference doubleheader this weekend will require the same amount of focus used at the Legends Classic in Brooklyn compared to what’s necessary against the Campbells of the world. A trip to Iowa City to face the Hawkeyes takes place first this Saturday. That game will tip-off at 5 p.m on BTN. Big Monday on ESPN will feature the Nittany Lions hosting Wisconsin at 7 p.m on ESPN2.
With these two Big Ten games being thrown into the mix, the approach to the first half of this season is drastically different from a typical season. Not to mention, with another nationally-televised game coming up, the Nittany Lions will potentially have yet another chance to play in front of NCAA Tournament committee voters.
Unlike past seasons, Penn State actually could’ve (and honestly should’ve) reached this point in the season as an undefeated team with two resumé-building non-conference wins. That part makes the losses sting more than they probably should for Penn State fans. However, with these two solid matches on deck for the Nittany Lions, Penn State still has a solid chance to rebuild this early season momentum and garner some buzz as a potential tournament selection.
While the long haul of a season has only just begun, this team has been as enjoyable to watch as any that have come and gone during the Pat Chambers era. The eye-test, along with added experience for the young players, a solid defense, and the Penn State-patented star point guard (see Newbill, Battle, Frazier), make this bunch of Nittany Lions much more intriguing than any of the Penn State squads since the program’s last tournament appearance.
So next time someone says Penn State basketball is back, let yourself believe a little bit. You might even have a little bit of fun this time around.