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Perimeter Shooting By Supporting Cast Key To Bouncing Back For Penn State Hoops

Penn State basketball dropped out of the polls this week after its two coldest showings offensively this season ended in back-to-back losses. After an emotional victory at The Palestra over ranked counterpart Iowa to start the new year, the performances that followed last week were puzzling. How could a group that poured in 89 points against the Hawkeyes combine for just 110 points in losses at Rutgers and in Happy Valley to Wisconsin?

The simplest answer — Penn State just hasn’t been able to score beyond the three-point arc all year. The team was already struggling in this department during its hot start to the 2019-20 campaign, entering the Rutgers game shooting 31.7 percent from downtown. The 11-for-47 (23.4 percent) combined three-point output from that meeting and the Wisconsin loss dropped the team’s season average by an entire percentage point, down to a meager 30.8 percent.

The team isn’t necessarily taking bad shots, the open three-point attempts really just haven’t fallen. Chambers spoke about his message entering this new week on Monday’s press conference, stating that he doesn’t plan on pulling the green light away from anyone.

“The guys have got to continue to shoot it,” Chambers said. “I’m sure people will say ‘What are you going to do about shots?’ Nothing, keep shooting it!”

“Out of the 21 three’s (attempted vs. Wisconsin), I thought three were bad,” Chambers continued. “All the others were very good, in rhythm, uncontested shots, and you’ve got to keep taking those. And the right shooters are taking those.”

However, the effects of the below-average perimeter shooting are felt way deeper beyond just the individual misses themselves. When opponents don’t have to respect your perimeter shooters as much, they might be more willing to try and ‘pack it in’ and focus on challenging shots from inside rather than overextend themselves to put a hand up when your team decides to jack up a shot from downtown. Penn State made just 28 of its 66 shots from inside the arc over the two losses, a 42.4 percent mark that falls well below its season average entering the Rutgers matchup (54.9 percent on two-point attempts).

It’s worth mentioning that this team doesn’t necessarily need to light it up from downtown to be successful. After all, Pat Chambers’s program has always been built on defense first, and started out 12-2 this season with that identity on full display. Not to mention, the 31.7 percent mark that those 20th-ranked Nittany Lions had maintained entering the Rutgers game would only be good enough for 256th (out of 350) nationally right now.

That’s only 28 spots higher than where the team sits after the consecutive bad shooting displays. However, the Nittany Lions do need their supporting shooters to be somewhat respectable to open the floor up for the three primary options in Lamar Stevens, Myreon Jones, and Mike Watkins. It’s the scoring of that trio that has Penn State at a much more respectable spot in overall field goal percentage this season (147th, 8th in Big Ten).

Stevens’s killer mid-range game can only work if he has shooters to stretch the floor, allowing him more space to work into his spots for cleaner looks at the basket. Watkins is much more dominant in the paint when he has deadly shooters running from corner to corner along the baseline to confuse and pull opposing defenses out of position. Jones can’t use his outstanding quickness to drive in for easy finishes at the rim if defenses just collapse on him and leave his teammates open intentionally.

“When your guys aren’t making your shots, now we have to go to Lamar,” Chambers said on Monday. “I’m going to continue to give our guys confidence; you can’t go away from giving them the green light.”

When shots aren’t falling for the supporting cast, those three top options for the Nittany Lions draw even more attention as opponents tend to live with deep attempts by Penn State guards such as Myles Dread and Curtis Jones Jr., a major reason as to why the two-point attempts, in addition to the three-pointers, weren’t falling last week either.

Despite being the team’s go-to shooters, it was Dread and Jones Jr. that struggled the most for the blue and white over this two-game stretch. The duo combined to shoot 1-for-24 from the field, including a 1-for-19 mark from three-point land in the losses. Both of them are shooting below 30 percent this season, despite ranking first and third on the team in attempts.

“I am going to continue to shoot the ball because that’s my job,” Dread said. “I am going to continue to do my job, and my teammates feeding me the ball is a part of the offense. That is just how it goes.”

Sixth man Izaiah Brockington went 2-for-10 with two missed triples against Rutgers before a solid 15-point outing against Wisconsin, yet he’s also struggled from three-point range this year. The sophomore is shooting just 24 percent from beyond the arc this season, though Brockington does rank third on the team in points per game (10.8) while being used exclusively off the bench.

If those three supporting cast players can be a bit more clinical on their open jump shots, this team has the potential to not only be among the top teams in the Big Ten, but a consistent team among the country’s top 25 polls down the stretch. Without some improvement on the perimeter, the Nittany Lions will find themselves right in the middle of one of the messiest Big Ten seasons in recent history, as 12 of the conference’s 14 teams currently rank among the top 36 teams in the nation according to KenPom.

Chambers isn’t worrying just yet, telling the media in Saturday’s postgame press conference that stumbles like this are bound to happen at some point. “We need everybody — we’re hitting a little speed bump here, a little bump in the road for us and we just have to go back to work,” Chambers said. “There is plenty of time here, a lot of games left.”

Fortunately for the Nittany Lions (12-4, 2-3), they travel to face Minnesota (9-7, 3-3) tonight — a team that ranks in the bottom half nationally in three-point defense. That matchup in Minneapolis tips off at 9:00 p.m., and you can watch the game on BTN.

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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, and tries his hardest to avoid the agony that being a Mets fan brings to his daily life. 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 and his garbage opinions on Twitter @mitchystew.

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