How Can Penn State Basketball Go Up From Here?
The clocked ticked down to all zeros in the World’s Most Famous Arena, and all eyes were focused on the star of the night, celebrating a championship with his teammates after a 28-point outing.
Lamar Stevens, along with a blossoming young group of Penn State players who gained experience over the team’s NIT title run, seemed poised to continue that momentum in the 2018-19 season. There was optimism in the air, after a win over preseason No. 13 West Virginia (which we later found out was grossly overrated) and another impressive recruiting haul for eighth-year coach Pat Chambers.
That optimism bubble has popped.
Penn State is 0-9 in the Big Ten, and 7-13 overall. The team is lost on offense without Tony Carr and Shep Garner, as opponents double down on Stevens and force him either to take contested shots or pass the ball away. The Nittany Lions are averaging just 67.4 points per game – down more than seven points from last year’s team, second-to-last in the Big Ten, and 63rd out of the 65 ‘Power 5’ conference teams.
It’s not like the blue and white are getting stomped every time out. The roster is teeming with promising players, and the rotation represents a lot of different skills. Stevens is the scorer who can work around the floor off of the ball to draw attention, in turn creating space for his teammates. Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins are experienced Big Ten guys who are bullies defensively, able to dominate above the rim at the other end. These three players returned from the core of the lineup that won a school-record 26 games last year.
Freshmen Myles Dread and Rasir Bolton have shown flashes as deep threat shooters who can spread around Stevens, if used correctly. Sophomore Jamari Wheeler is one of the most agitating on-ball defenders in the Big Ten, and fellow second-year big man John Harrar cleans the offensive boards better than anyone who’s suited up at the BJC in recent memory. Myreon Jones provided volume scoring off the bench in an upset over top-15 Virginia Tech in November, and when he’s on, his aptness for putting the ball in the hoop is well above-average for a reserve.
But things haven’t gone as planned.
The freshmen guards have taken turns getting hot, rarely at the same time, while the others simultaneously struggle to make an impact on the game. Wheeler and Harrar haven’t provided for the offense beyond bringing the ball up the floor (Wheeler) and setting occasional screens and fighting for rebounds (Harrar).
Stevens has lost his touch from the perimeter, making just 12 of his 59 3-pointers on the year, despite working tirelessly on his shot.
“I’ve just been missing — I don’t know,” Stevens said after the Michigan State loss. “I have to keep working. I work every day so hopefully they’ll start falling for me.”
Reaves hasn’t been able to step up and carry the load left by Carr and Garner, averaging two points less per game than he did during the team’s NIT title run. Watkins hasn’t commanded the ball enough in the post, so despite his 58 percent shooting percentage, the big man is averaging nearly four points less per contest.
Even during this 0-9 start to conference play and a stretch of 11 losses in their last 14 games, the Nittany Lions have never appeared to quit on the coach. Chambers was suspended for one of the two games when the Nittany Lions were actually blown out this season, but every other game has essentially come down to the final five minutes.
Watkins has the ability, and needs to improve his stamina so he can see the floor for more than 22 minutes. At the same time, he needs to get the ball more in the low block to make opposing defenses respect the redshirt junior in the paint. He has all of the tools to be a force in this league, as he was last season with 12.1 points per game, 8.9 rebounds, and a 69 percent field goal percentage. He just needs to find that extra gear so he doesn’t disappear at the end of these games.
As far as the stars, Stevens and Reaves, the duo has worked desperately over the last few weeks to correct shooting woes. To Chambers’ credit, the effort is obvious from this team. The two players want it so badly, as they’ve said repeatedly over the last two weeks. When that switch does finally flip and a couple of shots start falling for these guys, the confidence should return.
“I love the mindset of the team, because they easily could have gone a different way and they didn’t,” Chambers said at a press conference Tuesday.
“They’re in here getting extra shots. That’s why I was a couple minutes late (to the press conference), I was in there looking — guys getting extra shots up, extra lifts, extra film session. And that’s all them, it’s not us, it’s all them wanting to do this…so I like the way their heads are right now, I like where their belief is.”
If Stevens and Reaves get their swagger back, that could push the team over that ledge against future opponents like Northwestern, Ohio State, Nebraska, or Illinois. However, it will be this team’s dependence on youth in the backcourt that decides whether it can lift itself out of the cellar down the stretch. In a year where the Big Ten is as deep as any conference in the country and ten different teams have spent time in the AP Poll rankings, ESPN “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi has all ten of those teams in — leaving Northwestern, Illinois, Rutgers, and Penn State as the odd teams out.
From the perspective of the role players, Dread, Bolton, Wheeler, and Jones must find a way to form some semblance of consistency at the guard position. Dread and Bolton must learn to play without the ball in their hands, otherwise the stagnant Penn State offense can’t change.
Chambers likes to slow games down and rely on his defense, and while it’s okay to wear down the shot clock, the ball still needs to start moving around the arc quicker when the Nittany Lions are in their half-court offense. Shooters should be switching corners along the baseline, not watching Lamar Stevens struggle through a double team. Wheeler must focus on controlling the tempo until he improves as a shooter, while Jones needs to improve defensively and stop making bad shot selections, especially in transition.
The frontcourt depth must find a way to provide more valuable minutes. Kyle McCloskey has been a revelation off the wing, providing outstanding effort and sound, smart fundamentals on both ends of the floor. However, the former Villanova quarterback has only appeared in four out of Penn State’s last eight games, and five overall this season. Harrar must at least improve as a free throw shooter (17-for-32) until he’s able to provide a threat as an inside scorer.
Deivis Zemgulis has only registered minutes in five games after 23 appearances and two starts last season, and stretch-four Trent Buttrick has only made eight of his 26 3-point attempts on the year with Zemgulis’s former minutes. If Buttrick can’t improve his shooting efficiency, his liability as a defender would be enough to consider moving toward involving the physical Zemgulis more in the game plan.
“This is a young team that is out there making critical decisions offensively, defensively and on special teams,” Chambers said after the 64-60 home loss to Rutgers on Saturday. “I would much rather be in a one-possession game then get beat by an excessive amount.”
“So keep putting ourselves there, learn from these experiences, and we are going to break through.”
Reaves turns the ball over when he’s thrusted in at point forward (although he also lobs alley-oop assists like it’s nothing), and taking the pressure off of him by keeping him on the wing might free him up offensively. His ability to cut the rim needs to be exploited more, whether it’s out of the high post with Stevens or a pass by a point guard. This will make defenders back off of him, fearing a drive and hypothetically allowing for more open looks for the senior.
A difficult stretch of games will put the Nittany Lions’ backs against the wall as they try to claw out their first conference win of the season. The team hosts Purdue tonight, along with Michigan and Nebraska, and visits Northwestern, Ohio State, and Purdue over the next 17 days. If the team picked up the ball movement, two out of the trio of Reaves, Stevens, and Watkins heat up, and two of the four guards string together a strong run of games, this group could be capable of winning three or four of those games.
That’s obviously a big ‘if.’
There have been plenty of close losses, and we’ve all heard that word ‘close’ so many times during the Chambers era. In fact, it was used last weekend.
“We’re this close to breaking through,” Chambers said Saturday. “I’m more optimistic walking out of this arena than I was a week ago [at Minnesota]. We’ve just got to clean up a few things.”
This squad has the potential to turn that ‘close’ into wins if even two players’ luck change, and realistically I don’t see this team visiting 13th place Illinois on February 23 with an 0-15 Big Ten record.
If I had to be realistic, this team should be able to pick up at least two wins over the next six games, most likely over road trips to Northwestern, Ohio State, and/or the home game against Nebraska. Hell, an 0-14 Penn State team beat No. 4 Michigan in 2015 at the BJC, and crazier things have happened. To sweeten this entirely too hopeful lightning-striking-twice theory, the Wolverines are currently ranked fifth in the nation.
Like I said, crazier things have happened.
In the meantime, it’s fair to expect this team to pick up a couple of wins by Valentine’s Day. Considering the question at hand, going from zero wins to any wins is going up. This isn’t something that will just snap in place over night. But the air is thickening around this team with every loss, and if something doesn’t change soon, this season could spiral into one of the more disappointing seasons in recent history for the program, especially considering the team returned seven players who started at least once for last year’s NIT championship squad.
Penn State’s next chance to get its first Big Ten victory comes tonight when the Nittany Lions take on red-hot No. 17 Purdue, winners of eight out of its last nine games, at the BJC. Tip off is at 7 p.m., and you can watch the game on FS1.
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