Penn State Hoops Still Looking For Offensive Spark
Nearly ninth months removed from a 26-win season capped off by an NIT title, Penn State men’s basketball finds itself in the middle of its worst season in four years. With a 7-8 record and an 0-4 start in Big Ten play, the Nittany Lions are in danger of tallying their second losing season in three years, despite returning four bona fide starters.
So what’s happened to this program that just last winter knocked off Ohio State three times? Mike Watkins is back and healthy. Lamar Stevens is playing practically the whole game every game. Two players from the touted freshmen trio in the backcourt have started at least half of Penn State’s games. Josh Reaves is well on his way to leading the conference in steals for a third straight year.
The problem lies on the offensive end of the floor, and more specifically on putting the ball into the hoop. Penn State has lost six of its last nine games since knocking off Virginia Tech in late November, going stone cold en route to its worst Big Ten start since the 2014-15 season. The team has reached the 70-point mark in only four of the games during this stretch – in wins over UMBC, Duquesne, and Colgate – and in an 11-point loss at NC State.
The team was unable to knock off Indiana at home at the start of the month, netting just 62 points in a two-point loss and missing two shots in the final seconds that could’ve sent the game to overtime. The Nittany Lions scored just 59 points in their Big Ten opening loss to Maryland, and scored in the 50s in their last two losses to Michigan and Wisconsin.
Pat Chambers has always been a stellar defensive coach who can get a ton of effort out of his players at that end of the floor, but this problem has existed for a long time. Even last year, the isolation-heavy scheme pitted Tony Carr against the world night in and night out, while the team hoped Shep Garner could just hit half his shots from deep and it would be enough.
Both of those guys are gone, and left is a familiar shell that’s allowed Rasir Bolton to show flashes of asserting himself as the team’s primary ball-handler. The team just stands around the circle, with whichever big man is on the floor setting a couple of screens, hoping Lamar Stevens can break his double team and get semi-decent look from mid-range. Many are contested, but Stevens is good enough to get his 20 points a night. However, the team hasn’t been able to rely on anyone else consistently.
Reaves’ effort is evident, but his desire to improve offensively hasn’t shown in the stat book. His 13.4 points per game average in the NIT last season has dropped to 9.5 points per game on 42 percent shooting. He needs to get more chances find his rhythm, but issues lie beyond the senior wing. Watkins played well at Michigan, but he’s only scoring 7.5 points a night due to his low playing time of 20 minutes. These were the two guys who should’ve been helping Stevens shoulder the load up to this point, but it just hasn’t happened.
“Josh Reaves wants to be so perfect, but the biggest issue I see is foul trouble,” head coach Pat Chambers said Tuesday. Chambers also discussed Watkins’ performance at Michigan, but noted that his fitness wasn’t where it needed to be. “Physically, Watkins still has some work to do,” Chambers said. “He’s not in the best shape yet.”
Buttrick’s role has increased over the last few games, including a start at Michigan, but he hasn’t shown he’s reliable in the offense. Harrar simply sets screens when he’s on the floor, although he’s been a brute on the offensive glass (32 of his 65 rebounds have been offensive).
Jamari Wheeler has almost completely fallen out of favor, although the sophomore is averaging four steals per 36 minutes and is still a stud defensively. Bolton went on a seven-game stretch with double-digit scoring performances, but has scored less than seven in three of Penn State’s last four games. Dread has reached double figures in just one Big Ten game, and is hitting on only a 34 percent clip from beyond the arc. Myreon Jones hasn’t recorded more than five points in a Big Ten game.
If this team is going to progress, Chambers must ditch this isolation, star-focused offense and start moving the ball around. Reaves’ vision and leadership need to be used more in distributing the ball, and his increased role in the offense could be the key to regaining his confidence. Watkins must get into shape and fast, because he can be a double-double machine for a team desperately in need of some consistency.
Stevens needs to continue to take his shots, and hopefully the attention he demands will allow for the trio of guards to find their shooting stroke. Bolton needs to slow down and control the pace more, as his inexperience leads to turnovers or contested shots in transition far too often. Dread gets good looks and would benefit from motion offensively. He simply needs to start making his open shots, and become the formidable, Garner-like specialist Penn State expected him to be. If Jones can supply offensive scoring when the starters are off and Wheeler can protect the ball and do what he does best on the other end of the floor, the backcourt should be in good shape.
Harrar and Buttrick need to give this team more life when Watkins is out of the game. Harrar can do it all as a rebounder, but must develop a move or two in the post that can make him a player teams respect on the low block. Buttrick is advertised as a stretch four and has made 33 percent of his 3-pointers this year, buy he needs to become a stronger fixture on the glass.
With their next three opponents all among the top 30 in votes received in this week’s AP Poll, the Nittany Lions need to enact offensive change now. A late-night road game at Nebraska on Thursday will be challenging, followed by home matchups against No. 6 Michigan State and Iowa. This team is strong enough defensively to stay in the game with any of these teams, and if just a few players can kick it up a notch, Penn State will be primed to pull off an upset or two that could turn its season around.
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