Penn State Hoops Staying Disciplined As Brutal Schedule Rolls On
After Penn State men’s basketball’s dominant 2019-20 season, most wouldn’t be satisfied as the team sits at 7-8 in February.
However, with their offseason shaken by a pandemic and a confusing dismissal of their former leader, this year’s Nittany Lions have been nothing short of impressive to watch.
Interim head coach Jim Ferry’s team remains to be one game under .500 and is battling in the bottom half of the Big Ten with a 4-7 conference mark. That doesn’t change the fact that the Nittany Lions have been playing some great basketball as of late by grabbing wins in four of their last six contests.
After dropping its first five Big Ten games and seemingly treading water in the toughest league in college basketball, Penn State has picked up victories against some traditional powerhouses. Things got going with a nice win over a talented Rutgers squad, a squeaker over Northwestern, and even a double-digit victory over then-No. 13 Wisconsin.
Most recently, Ferry’s group picked up a scrappy five-point victory over Maryland Friday night.
The Nittany Lions’ recent stretch has also included a heartbreaking loss to No. 4 Ohio State and an ugly defeat to the Badgers after facing them in consecutive games. That’s just further proof of how tough the group’s conference schedule has been.
In fact, kenpom.com has Penn State’s strength of schedule score at +19.53. According to that statistical ranking, that’s the toughest schedule recorded since it began in the 2001-02 season.
While they’ve already played a brutal slate and have a number of challenges left (including the Buckeyes and No. 15 Iowa), the Nittany Lions remain in the March Madness mix with seven games left in the regular season.
As of last Friday, ESPN “Bracketologist” Joe Lunardi has Penn State as a “next four out” team in this year’s NCAA Tournament. However, if the Nittany Lions can close out these last seven games with a winning record and make a push in the Big Ten Tournament, it’s hard not to see them as candidates for the Big Dance.
The biggest knock on this squad down the stretch will be the same it’s been all season: size. It’s clearly been Penn State’s Achilles heel this season, but the group has found a way to manage of late thanks to the aggressive play of John Harrar. He and fellow senior captain Jamari Wheeler have helped the group climb back to Big Ten relevance these past few weeks.
Even in the team’s most recent win where usual offensive stars like Myreon Jones and Izaiah Brockington weren’t in form, the pair of seniors led the way with stingy defensive play.
“We went hard [Thursday] in practice, and that showed that we had our edge back,” Harrar said. “I think defense and rebounding, it’s just a ‘want-to.’ Offense will come naturally, and you can score. But with defense and rebounding you gotta want to do it, it’s gotta be your mindset.”
While Maryland is hardly the biggest team in the conference, the Nittany Lions have proved of late that their attitude and willingness to do the dirty work will be crucial in dealing with the big men they’ll face.
While Harrar leads in the way in the grit department by averaging 8.4 boards a game, Penn State is well aware that discipline will also be the name of the game. Ferry has made it clear to his group that getting into foul trouble is no way to beat some of the nation’s top squads.
“[Discipline has been everything. We’ve been talking about it now we’re doing it,” Ferry said. “When we beat you from the foul line and limit our fouls, we’ve given ourselves a chance to win. It’s a philosophy that I’ve always had, and I think our group here is really understanding it and seeing it.”
Next up for the Nittany Lions is Michigan State on Tuesday night. While the Spartans are 9-7 and aren’t having a banner year in conference play, Tom Izzo’s squad still has (you guessed it!) size in forwards Aaron Henry and Joey Hauser.
Penn State will certainly face even more challenges such as that on this gauntlet to close out the campaign but expect them to stick with their head coach’s philosophy. While it was a bumpy offseason, there’s not much question left as to whether this team will battle for a postseason spot under Ferry.
“I love Coach Ferry,” Harrar said. “He always says not even the basketball player I am but the human being, and I think that speaks to him. He sees us as human beings. He’s a great coach. The relationship I’ve built with him will last forever.”
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