Big Ten Preview: Men’s Basketball Faces Tough Road Ahead
Penn State wrapped up non-conference play last week — finishing 8-5 with two losses to AP Top 25 opponents.
It only gets tougher for the Nittany Lions as they head into Big Ten play. Traditionally a team that struggles once it hits its conference slate, Penn State will face another tough road ahead with powerhouse programs and currently three AP Top 25 opponents on the schedule.
It all gets started on Tuesday as Pat Chambers’ squad takes on Northwestern at home (3 p.m. on ESPN2). For the sixth-year Penn State coach, his team is ready after a grueling non-conference start to the season.
“I like to think it’s prepared us,” Chambers said. “I see a team, and I hope you have to that’s really grown up since the opening night. I see our habits are getting a little bit better, I see our consistency is getting a little bit better, we are defending and rebounding better. Our toughness has gotten a little better and it can get better and will get better.”
The talk leading up to the season was about the new up-tempo offense Chambers implemented for this year. With just two true low post players on the roster and no center, being able to play fast and catch bigger conference opponents on the fastbreak is key if the Nittany Lions are going to have success.
Through the opening thirteen games of the season, the offense has been inconsistent — some games producing its desired high-possession turned into high-scoring intent, and other times getting bogged down too often in half-court play.
For Chambers, the offense producing like it should starts on the defensive end. To be able to get into transition, the defense needs to put the offense in position to do so.
“It all starts with getting stops and rebounds,” Chambers said. “It starts on the defensive end. It starts with Mike [Watkins] blocking shots or altering shots, but even the young guys are in stances a little bit more and really buying in to our defensive game plan.”
After losing four seniors following last season, all playing a major role, Penn State’s touted freshmen class was going to be forced to have an impact this season. With redshirt forward Mike Watkins, and true freshmen forward Lamar Stevens and guard Tony Carr, the trio has shined with each receiving starting minutes.
The difficult non-conference schedule will help, but Big Ten basketball is a huge step for a first-year player. Having been thrown into the fire from the get-go this season, the trio is ready to shine on the B1G stage.
“You have to come prepared to play,” Stevens said. “You’re playing twice a week, and the Big Ten is one of the best conferences in the country. You’re going to be going against top tier talent every night. So, you have to come ready to play since it’s a different beast. We’re going to get back to work, and practice when we come back. We’re going to be ready.”
Compared to last year where the Nittany Lions started out with a pair of road games including one against No. 4 Maryland, this young Penn State squad might be able to ease its way into the Big Ten — kicking it all off with a home game and five opponents before facing a challenge from ranked foe.
Still, the Nittany Lions are a team without a senior entering one of the toughest conferences in basketball. This upcoming Big Ten slate might be more about building experience and preparing for a more competitive future.