Penn State Hoops Prepared To ‘Win Any Way’ Without Clear-Cut Starting Lineup
In just over eight months at the helm of the revamped Penn State men’s basketball program, first-time head coach Micah Shrewsberry has worked tirelessly to develop an on-court product with the makeup to win without facing a transitional decline.
Despite his extensive preparation through scheme implementation and roster maturation, the former Purdue assistant has yet to settle on one of the game’s most important aspects: putting together a starting five with established chemistry.
Although the lack of a cohesive lineup would be seen as a detriment to most outside the program, Shrewsberry believes it’s a testament to the competitiveness and culture built within his locker room throughout his short span in Happy Valley.
“We started kind of narrowing down, as the weeks have gotten closer, the guys that are going to play for [us]” Shrewsberry said Monday afternoon. “I give them long stretches at a time in different groups because as the game goes on, it’s really important to have your five guys that start the game and play the game, but they’re going to be mixed together throughout the whole game, so they all need to know how to play together. I think that’s huge for us because we can’t have lulls in terms of one group playing better than the other group. We all need to be executing at the right way, at the right level.”
With the return of fifth-year forward John Harrar, the Nittany Lions are once again primed to present Big Ten frontcourts with consistent fits around the rim. However, aside from the Delaware County native, several other Penn State post players are currently projected to miss a majority of the non-conference slate, leaving Shrewsberry’s squad liable for mismatches with a guard-heavy lineup.
Aside from Harrar, veteran Greg Lee transferred to Penn State primed to anchor the opposite block prior to developing an undisclosed injury during the preseason. Last year, Lee started all 21 contests for Western Michigan before joining Shrewsberry’s crew. In just 27 minutes per game, the efficient big man averaged 13.2 points along with 7.2 rebounds per outing, resulting in an All-MAC honorable mention nod.
Moreover, the Nittany Lions are also without junior college product Jevonnie Scott due to NCAA eligibility hurdles. During a two-year stint at South Plains College in Texas, the 6’7″ forward led his squad to two junior college tournament appearances, while posting 10.5 points per game throughout the span.
While the losses clearly hurt the Nittany Lions’ on-court balance, Shrewsberry isn’t concerned with how the team’s playstyle will alter in their absence. Instead, the head coach has prepped the team to compete the same exact way, regardless of who’s on the court at any given moment.
“Who is going to be available is the most important thing,” Shrewsberry said. “I know Greg [Lee] is bummed that he won’t get a chance to play with us here at the start, but the other guys have really stepped up in that way, and we’ve kind of taken on that mantra ‘win any way.’ It doesn’t matter who’s out there. It doesn’t matter what our circumstances are, [but] you can still win the game, and that’s what our focus is on. Whether it’s next-man-up mentality or whatever it may be, we’re still going to compete, and we’re still going to go out and play the same exact way. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for us.”
The absence of both forwards has led to the emergence of Jalanni White, a 6’8″ graduate transfer who arrived in Happy Valley in the spring following a four-year stint at Canisius. Despite boasting 98 games of experience, White is the most unproven of Penn State’s five new transfers.
During a shortened pandemic-hindered senior season, White started each matchup for the Griffins but posted just 3.9 points per contest throughout the 11-game span. After taking a chance on the veteran, Shrewsberry is certain the lengthy forward has yet to hit his ceiling in a collegiate uniform.
“I haven’t had a concern about John at all, and Jalanni, I look at him and there’s days in practice and you wonder, ‘Man, how did he average three points per game, because he’s a really talented kid,'” Shrewsberry said. “He’s got some tools that we’re going to try to keep bringing out and keep showcasing in terms of the things that he can do. I’m pleased with all of our guys.”
After spending nearly six seasons in the NBA, Shrewsberry has a philosophy that has shifted from the traditional one-through-five, position-labeled lineup utilized by most teams across the country. Rather, the innovative coach believes the modern game is all about matchups, created by putting the team’s five most-skilled players on the court at any given time, regardless of height or stature.
The new-age ideology certainly garners boom-or-burst potential, but the plethora of talented guards within the program removes unnecessary limits to what the Nittany Lions can become in a smaller, fast-paced attack with the potential to score in volumes.
“I’m all about just putting them out there, no matter who it is,” Shrewsberry said. “In the game of basketball, there’s always going to be mismatches everywhere. It’s about who takes advantage of those mismatches and who can kind of thrive in those situations.
“We’re just going to play whoever’s rolling. If everybody’s 5’6”, then you’re just going to have five 5’6” guys out there,” he added. “We’ll figure it out. We’ll figure out what we need to do, but if we’re playing at the right level, if we’re playing hard enough, if we’re playing tough enough, we’ll get it done. We’ll get it done no matter how big or how small anybody is out there.”
For Penn State, presenting a four-guard lineup might be its best course of action. Pairing all-conference transfers Jalen Pickett and Jaheam Cornwall with Myles Dread and Sam Sessoms would give the Nittany Lions’ crowded backcourt 44.6 points per game on its own, based on last season averages.
With the potential of having so many talented scorers on the floor at once, Shrewsberry’s main point of emphasis focuses on teaching his players how to play situationally, rather than running pre-called sets for individualized shot attempts.
“There’s not a lot [of coaching] about teaching these guys plays,” Shrewsberry said. “I want to teach them how to play, and then the situation will tell us what to do. Hopefully, we see that on Wednesday. We spent a lot of time trying to teach them how to play, and now as the situation changes, they need to adjust and make the right play every time.”
Without an answer as to who will hit the floor come tipoff on opening night, Penn State has plenty of viable options to turn to in Micah Shrewsberry’s first on-court installment as the new face of the program.
Whether the head coach tries to out-hustle the non-conference slate through small ball or grind it out with a Harrar-centered offensive attack, the Nittany Lions have 11 opportunities to settle on a consistent combination before entering the Big Ten gauntlet.
Penn State is set to start its season against Youngstown State on Wednesday, November 10. Tip-off from the Bryce Jordan Center is set for 8:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.
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