Making Sense Of This Penn State Hoops Season
Being a Penn State men’s basketball fan is painful more often than not, and this season has been no exception.
Year in and year out, the squad seems to be on the brink of a tournament bid only to come up short when it matters most. Last season, the Nittany Lions seemed ready for a tournament run, but losses to Rider and Northwestern were just too ugly to overcome.
With Michigan in the house, and just one remaining conference game, Penn State could’ve made a statement to the selection committee. It felt like a perfect opportunity to show the basketball world that the Nittany Lions finally deserved a bid. Instead, Mike Watkins went down with a knee injury that kept him out for the remainder of the season early on in the game, and Penn State lost by nine.
The offseason also followed a familiar trend: Players graduated — or even left for the pros — and it was back to square one with a mix of untested freshmen and proven veterans.
Still, even with some idea that the Nittany Lions were starting anew, there were reasons to be excited. Lamar Stevens was primed to be an All-Big Ten forward (which he was), Josh Reaves was surely going to be in the mix for the conference defensive player of the year award (which he won), and Mike Watkins would be back to anchor the team in the paint (more on this later).
After an NIT championship, Pat Chambers’ squad appeared ready to take the next step, and early signals were exciting. Penn State traveled to take on a highly-ranked West Virginia team in the preseason, and it won the matchup behind 23 points from freshman Myles Dread. In non-conference play, the Nittany Lions took down No. 13 Virginia Tech in a thrilling win.
But then the Nittany Lions started losing, and it took a while to get back to winning. Non-conference losses to DePaul, Bradley, NC State, and Alabama meant that any momentum heading into the Big Ten slate had completely vanished. The Nittany Lions lost eight straight conference games and sat at the bottom of the standings with an 0-10 record in Big Ten play.
Penn State has lacked depth inside all season. Mike Watkins struggled in the offseason with personal issues that limited his play time early on. Although he’s played well recently and has made tremendous strides in his personal battle with mental health issues, Watkins hasn’t been the same player he was in past seasons. In that sense, maybe the team didn’t shape up quite like it should’ve.
The team also struggled intensely from three at times. Despite his terrific play, Lamar Stevens has shot just 22.1 percent from beyond the arc. Even Myles Dread and Rasir Bolton, the team’s most consistent three-point shooters, are in the mid-30s from three.
Then, in a painful turn of events, the Nittany Lions went 8-3 over the course of their remaining games as freshmen stepped up their play and Lamar Stevens continued to dominate on the offensive end of the floor.
I call this winning form “painful,” because it seems like Chambers’ squad has been capable of this all year. So, what took the team so long to figure out how to win?
In hindsight, it’s pretty easy to say the freshmen on the team needed to learn how to play in the Big Ten. Rasir Bolton became a consistent scorer for Penn State in its 10 final regular season games with an average of 12.4 points per game over that stretch. Myles Dread had big performances in important games, including 17-point outputs in wins over both Michigan and Maryland.
Lamar Stevens has continued to be unstoppable, too, while both Jamari Wheeler and Josh Reaves have stepped up when the team has needed it to give the Nittany Lions just enough to win.
With the regular season wrapped up, we’re only left to wonder where this team would be with Tony Carr still around in Happy Valley. The point guard put the team on his back last season on a number of occasions and would’ve almost certainly been a First Team All-Big Ten selection. In this theoretical universe, Penn State would go dancing this year.
Instead, the Nittany Lions enter the Big Ten Tournament with only hopes of an NIT bid.
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