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Penn State Hoops Season Preview: Experience The Key To Take The Program To The Next Level

There’s no easy way to put it. The 2018-19 Penn State men’s basketball season was a massive disappointment.

The team won its second-most games in school history the season before, taking home an NIT championship after a 26-13 season that featured a run to the Big Ten semifinals as well. Last year, the team started 0-10 in conference play before finally beating Northwestern on February 4. In 15 of the team’s 20 conference games, Penn State was within three possessions in the final five minutes of action. The Nittany Lions won just four of those games.

But the team ended the year on a better note, winning seven out of 10 games to end the regular season before a close loss to Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Nearly every piece from last year’s team returns this season, and the only notable departures (Josh Reaves graduated, Rasir Bolton transferred to Iowa State) have been replaced with solid options for the Penn State rotation (freshmen Seth Lundy and Patrick Kelly, transfers Izaiah Brockington and Curtis Jones Jr.).

There’s a lot of reasons to be optimistic for this bunch over the next five months. Eight returning players averaged seven or more minutes of playing time per game last season, and included with the aforementioned new additions, this team should return to some sort of postseason tournament this March.

Projected Starting Lineup

Guard: Jamari Wheeler
Guard: Myreon Jones
Guard: Myles Dread
Forward: Lamar Stevens
Forward: Mike Watkins

The Backcourt

This area is loaded for Pat Chambers this year. Even with Bolton’s departure, we will finally get to see what Izaiah Brockington can do in a Penn State uniform. He’s been one of the hottest topics throughout the preseason, and his defensive acumen shined in the team’s charity exhibition win over Delaware.

On top of his seemingly-increasing potential, sophomores Myles Dread and Myreon Jones return as the team’s two best perimeter scorers. Jones made a name for himself in last year’s upset win over No. 13 Virginia Tech when he scored 18 points before cooling way off in the middle months. He was able to contribute six points per night over the last eight games of the year.

Dread has the potential to become Penn State’s true secondary scoring option behind Stevens. When Stevens is in the post, or when Jones and Wheeler are attacking the paint from the top of the key, Dread seems to find himself with a ton of wide-open opportunities from beyond the arc. He led the team by making more than two three-pointers per game last year, but now is the time where Dread needs to become a steady factor for this team and average 12 or 13 points per game.

Jamari Wheeler is likely the team’s best backcourt defender (Brockington is a bit longer and will take the wing when they play together), but the Nittany Lions need his last two years of experience as a Big Ten point guard to finally amount to a consistent, pass-first distributor on the offensive end. With Wheeler’s insane quickness, any sort of improvement in his offensive game this season would take Penn State up a notch.

Brockington is joined by fellow transfer Curtis Jones Jr. this year, although Jones Jr. has yet to be ruled eligible to suit up for the Nittany Lions after prior stops at Oklahoma State and Indiana. His experience on two other Power Five teams would be invaluable for a young backcourt that features three sophomores and a junior, but for the moment he will not be able to take the floor for Chambers.

The Frontcourt

The frontcourt tandem of Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens is arguably the best in the Big Ten when both are healthy. The changes undergone by Watkins over the summer have been very well-documented, and his work ethic and personality seemed to have made a 180 based off of what I’ve seen of him on the court (Delaware) and off of it.

Of course, Stevens might be the best pure scorer in the Big Ten, and may very well join his former teammates Reaves and Tony Carr by getting the chance to make an NBA roster next summer. The senior averaged almost 20 points and eight assists last year without a consistent outside jump shot. If he’s gotten even marginally better, he’ll be among the top 10 scorers in the nation at season’s end.

Beyond these two, the Nittany Lions have three very promising options. John Harrar saw plenty of time last season as Watkins battled injuries, and he’s entering his junior campaign more confident than ever before. An additional year to bulk up and evolve in one of the most physical basketball conferences could lead to a perfect role for Harrar on this team, especially if Watkins stays healthy.

They’ll be able to keep Watkins fresh and still have a very well-rounded big man on the floor when they roll with Harrar, and Chambers has mentioned the thought of potentially playing both of his centers on the floor simultaneously, if one of them could consistently knock down a jumper (both have been working on their perimeter game, according to Chambers).

Trent Buttrick has been trying to get bigger as well, but his silky smooth three-pointers allow him to play alongside either of the centers at the “4,” which can create matchup hell for teams that have to guard Lamar Stevens playing the “3.” Another lanky wing that can play similar positions to Stevens and even hails from the same high school is freshman Seth Lundy. At 6-foot-6, 219 pounds, Lundy will likely play the “3” spot this year, but as he gets bigger he could potentially play as a “4” in the future, and maybe even this season if necessary. He seems to have some offensive flair, but also looked willing to do the defensive dirty work against Delaware.

What To Expect

The Nittany Lions have five major conference opponents on their non-conference schedule, but none of them are particularly scary (Alabama, Georgetown, Ole Miss, Wake Forest, either Oklahoma State or Syracuse). If this team can avoid any of the silly losses that have plagued this program in past seasons – ahem, Rider, Albany, Bradley, etc. – than there’s no reason as to why Penn State shouldn’t be 9-4 (0-2) or 10-3 (1-1) heading into 2020, which would be a very favorable mark. But it’s hard to expect that from this team when it seems to happen more than once each season.

Once the team gets passed that tough start with Ohio State and Maryland in December, I actually really like the start of their conference slate. The team could very well win three out of four conference games to start 2020 and be 3-3 when Ohio State visits town in mid-January. I see nine or 10 wins in the conference overall, putting them right around anywhere from 17-14 to 20-11 just depending on how those close games shake out.

Prediction

Season Record: 18-13 (9-11) – Bubble Team, NIT Berth

In the years I’ve spent watching this team, I’ve gotten better at knowing where to set my expectations, no matter whether nothing looks positive or everything seems amazing. With that being said, I think this team falls on the lower side of that 17-20 win area, finishing with an 18-13 record. With teams like Michigan State, Maryland, Ohio State, and five major conference non-conference opponents, this team will have all the opportunities to craft a resume worthy of the Big Dance. However, I think the Nittany Lions might fall just outside like they did two seasons ago, and will return again to the NIT.

That’s not a bad thing per say, as the last championship run was pretty fun to watch down the stretch. But as Pat Chambers enters his ninth season, it’s fair to say that another NIT berth just isn’t cutting it with such a deep roster. With a strong Big Ten Tournament run or an upset of Michigan State or Maryland, who knows?

Maybe the Nittany Lions go dancing for the first time since Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” was the No. 1 song in the world.

For now, I have a feeling that this Penn State team is born to be an NIT team. Expect another solid run that could end with another trip back to the Big Apple and a chance at some hardware.

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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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