Penn State Hoops Season Preview: Stevens, Reaves Lead Young Team
Only four teams among the 347 basketball programs on D-1 level can enter the 2018-19 season coming off a postseason tournament championship.
Pat Chambers’ Penn State team, the 2018 NIT champs, won the second-tier invitational tournament with a win over Utah at Madison Square Garden last March. Now the Nittany Lions face a post Tony Carr/Shep Garner world this season, blending a deep, young backcourt with experienced wings like Josh Reaves and Lamar Stevens, along with capable big men in John Harrar and Mike Watkins.
What To Be Excited About
Myles Dread looked better than advertised in the preseason exhibition victory at No. 13 West Virginia last Saturday, pouring in five three-pointers and leading the team with 23 points. If Dread can become a reliable perimeter scoring threat and solidify a role in the starting five, Chambers will have a much easier job moving on from Garner and Carr.
Stevens is capable of contending for conference player of the year honors, and should be a breakout player nationally this year. Reaves is one of the premier on-ball defenders in the country, and an improvement from beyond the arc from the senior would give another good scoring option for the Nittany Lions beyond Dread and Stevens.
Chambers has spoken extensively about a two-bigs system featuring Harrar and Watkins, once Watkins is back with the team following his suspension. The size and strength of the tandem makes for a capable duo in the paint in a physical Big Ten conference. The Nittany Lions have much more depth at the guard and forward positions this year, and should be able to go 10-deep if necessary when Watkins and Satchel Pierce return to the lineup.
What To Worry About
Watkins is suspended indefinitely, and Pierce is academically ineligible for the rest of the fall semester, leaving a glaring hole at center for Penn State. Harrar is good enough to play the spot against teams like North Florida, but against tougher non-conference teams like Virginia Tech and Alabama, the team will struggle with its lack of talent in the frontcourt.
Longtime reserve Julian Moore graduated a year ago, meaning Stevens, Trent Buttrick, and Deivis Zemgulis must pick up the slack whenever Harrar is off the floor – creating potential matchup nightmares as 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 stretch fours try to guard much bigger opponents.
The backcourt is young and inexperienced this season with the loss of its two starters. Jamari Wheeler plays a lot like a Rajon Rondo-type guard, but must be able to knock down wide open shots if this team is to be successful. His perimeter shooting was atrocious during his freshman campaign, but Chambers said at preseason media day that it’s improved over this offseason.
Dread will have a lot of pressure on him after winning D.C. Gatorade Player of the Year honors as a high school senior, receiving a vote of approval from Jon Rothstein, and for his exhibition game scoring performance against the Mountaineers. The two freshman guards behind him on the depth chart – Myreon Jones and Rasir Bolton – can self-create offense and will be change-of-pace players off of Penn State’s bench.
Myles Dread. Buy Stock Now.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) November 3, 2018
Nazeer Bostick transferred from the program this offseason, and the only other guard talented enough to receive playing time will also sit out after transferring to Happy Valley – Izaiah Brockington. The combo guard from Philly was impressive with St. Bonaventure as a freshman, and will be a great addition to the team in the future. But that won’t help this unit that has just one player with any experience returning.
What To Expect
The schedule for this year appears more difficult on the surface than last year’s did, as both the non-conference and Big Ten slates will provide a challenge for this group. NC State returns to the schedule for a game in Atlantic City after beating Penn State last season, and the Nittany Lions will host another ACC foe in Virginia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Chambers needs to get his team ready to play over winter break for a home game against UMBC, the 16-seed that took the world by storm last March. This game falls during the same stretch of time of when the Rider loss occurred for this team last year, and the Retrievers will be a challenge. Throw in road trips to Alabama, Michigan, Purdue, and Ohio State and it’s easy to see that this schedule will push a young team to its limits.
This team is deeper than last year’s team at full strength, and has probably a bit more talent overall. Stevens should be a First Team All-Big Ten selection, while Reaves and Dread will be in the Defensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year races in the conference. Watkins must keep himself out of trouble long enough to return to the court for the Nittany Lions. The Nittany Lions must rely on their young depth to take the next step if they want to make a legitimate push for the Big Dance.
Pat Chambers’ squad could be good enough to finally summit the mountain that is making the NCAA Tournament, but the Nittany Lions also could be erratic enough to spin out of the Big Ten Tournament early and whiff on postseason competition altogether.
Reaves and Stevens’ play alone keeps them off of the floor of expectations, but it will be Watkins’ return and the maturity progression for the guards that will decide just how high Penn State will climb this season.
I believe Penn State will finish somewhere between sixth and eighth in a much deeper Big Ten this year. The conference only got four teams into the Big Dance last season, while the top tier is a bit closer to the middle of the pack this year as Michigan State and Purdue reload its rosters.
An 18-13 regular season (9-9 Big Ten) seems accurate for this year’s squad, and would likely place the team pretty far off of the bubble. I think Penn State will win at least one game in the conference tournament, and maybe two depending on the matchup, earning the defending NIT champions yet another bid to the secondary tournament.
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The celebration will culminate in Penn State’s 100th Homecoming football game against Purdue on Saturday, October 5.
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