Penn State Hoops Still Trying To Fill Final Starting Role

Penn State men’s basketball coach Pat Chambers says the team is still working to fill out its starting lineup with the season opener against North Florida less than a month away.

“I will tell you right now – we have four starters and we’re looking for a fifth and it’s an absolute dogfight for that fifth spot between the freshmen, and it’s been a lot of fun,” Chambers said Tuesday at the team’s media day.

Penn State is coming off of one of its most successful seasons in program history, finishing with the second-most wins in a season ever (26) and its second NIT title. Returning stars like Josh Reaves and Lamar Stevens lead this year’s roster, while several other players are competing for the vacancies left by Shep Garner and Tony Carr.

“Lamar Stevens is playing really good basketball now,” Chambers said. “He looks like a grown man. He was at Nike Basketball Academy this summer, really representing Penn State basketball very well. “

Mike Watkins is a bona fide starter as well, but his recent off-court troubles might put his availability into question. For the time being, no announcement has been made about Watkins’ availability for the start of the season, although Chambers did say that the program is waiting for the situation to play itself out.

“What I would say to that is we’ve got to let this play out,” Chambers said. “Let due process play out.”

Watkins was suspended to start the 2017 season, and the Nittany Lions are already struggling with frontcourt depth after Satchel Pierce was ruled academically ineligible. The Nittany Lions also lost a 2018 center commit in Tolu Jacobs Yaffa, who decommitted and is attending a junior college this season.

John Harrar was already a favorite to join the starting five, and Chambers has spoken extensively about using Harrar and Watkins in a two bigs lineup.

“I’ve done a lot of different things: I played two bigs, I’ve played John Harrar, Trent Buttrick, and Lamar Stevens all at the four,” Chambers said.

Jamari Wheeler was described time and time again at the team’s media day on Tuesday as the “energy” powering this team. With the patient, offensive maestro in Tony Carr out of the picture, Wheeler brings a new change of pace to the team as the starting point guard.

He struggled from beyond the arc last year, making just four of his 28 three-point attempts, but Chambers says his perimeter shooting and attitude have been great during the preseason.

“He is one of the most confident kids that I have ever been around for a six-foot guard, and I’m being generous with the six foot,” Chambers said. “He’s confident, he’s cocky, he’s tough, he competes. He steps on the floor and he does not — how do I say this nicely — shut up, which is a good thing.”

Wheeler could be a serious candidate to join Reaves on the Big Ten’s All-Defensive team this season. The sophomore averaged 1.3 steals per game last year, despite averaging just 14 minutes on the court. Reaves averaged 2.2 swipes per contest in 30 minutes of playing time.

“Rajon Rondo, I watch him a lot, and Chris Paul,” Wheeler said when comparing his play style to other players. “I love how they run and control their teams, they don’t stop talking and they make sure everyone is where they need to be and that’s what I try to do on the court.”

That leaves a clustered group of young players battling for a spot next to Wheeler in the five-man rotation. Freshmen guards Rasir Bolton, Myles Dread, and Myreon Jones have fought their way into the conversation, and will likely all see plenty of playing time early in the season. All three of the freshmen noted that improving their defensive play will be their primary focus as the position battle continues.

“They’re just willing to learn and listen, and are very coachable,” Reaves said of the freshman guards. “All the new guys, the transfers and the freshmen, everybody has been very coachable understanding different roles and concepts.”

This Nittany Lion team is deeper than it has been in prior years. While Pierce is gone until the end of the fall semester, Trent Buttrick and Deivis Zemgulis add two big bodies that can stretch the floor with their perimeter shooting abilities, whether they’re inserted as big men or on the wing.

Two of the three freshmen guards will be the options off the bench in the backcourt after Nazeer Bostick’s departure from the team, while sharpshooting wing Daniil Kasatkin will try to battle his way into the conversation for playing time. The versatility of Reaves and Stevens is what really enables the depth of this roster, as both players can realistically play at least three different positions for the Nittany Lions.

“When we went to Big Ten media day, a lot of the coaches were saying that they don’t like to prepare for us because of the type of team that we are,” Reaves said. “It’s just the type of thing that we’ve earned over time so I think it’s just going to continue to grow.”

The Nittany Lions will raise their NIT Championship banner at the Bryce Jordan Center on November 9 ahead of their season opener against North Florida. Penn State will also play an exhibition game against West Virginia in Morgantown on November 3.

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About the Author

Mitch Stewart

Mitch is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism from Roanoke, Virginia. In addition to his role with Onward State, Mitch talks about all the #sprots on Penn State's CommRadio. To contact Mitch, feel free to send him an e-mail at [email protected], and if you really don't value your social media accounts, follow him as he yells on Twitter about Penn State basketball @mitchystew.

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