Shrewsberry’s First Season Lays Groundwork For Penn State Hoops’ Future Success
Building a program from the ground up is a tall task for anyone hired outside the confines of a previously established culture marked by a decade’s worth of stability. Better yet, it’s even more difficult to put an instantly perception-altering stamp on a roster without any key contributors showing immediate interest in reshaping the identity of their own team.
On March 15, 2021, Micah Shrewsberry was strained with that exact challenge when he was officially hired as the next head men’s basketball coach at Penn State. At Purdue, the Indiana native was accustomed to assisting a well-oiled machine run by Matt Painter, who has led the Boilermakers to five NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen appearances since 2009.
In Happy Valley, Shrewsberry was assigned to develop a quick fix for a problem held by Penn State hoops, largely since its last Sweet Sixteen berth of its own, coming over two decades ago in 2001. Other than winning two postseason NIT crowns in 2009 and 2018 and embarking on a 22-win regular season two years ago, Penn State coaching staffs of the past have failed to construct trends of annual on-court success and stability.
With an astounding eight Nittany Lions in the transfer portal at the time of Shrewsberry’s arrival on campus, the prospect of the new head coach’s initial campaign becoming the season to re-invent the image of Penn State basketball seemed to be an insurmountable task.
Looking back, Shrewsberry knew the immediate direction of his program would depend on his ability to regain the trust of current Nittany Lions based on his future vision. Instead of using typical coach speech to promote his services, the former NBA assistant let his honesty do the convincing first, before selling any type of incentive.
“It’s almost a year to the day that I got hired,” Shrewsberry said following the Nittany Lions’ 69-61 Big Ten Tournament loss to Purdue. “I did a Zoom call with these guys. John [Harrar] was on the Zoom, and I told them, ‘I can’t get on the Zoom call and tell you guys I love you, we’re going to do great, and this and that.’ I was like, ‘I don’t even know you.’ That [would be] fake. That’s phony.”
Evidently, the call proved to be the most important pitch Shrewsberry’s made so far at the helm of the Nittany Lions. Despite losing out on the services of Izaiah Brockington, Myreon Jones, Jamari Wheeler, and Trent Buttrick, Shrewsberry’s genuine persona was able to win over a game-changing cornerstone in John Harrar that day.
From there, Seth Lundy, Myles Dread, and Sam Sessoms all followed suit by affirming their commitment to Penn State under Shrewsberry’s newfound leadership. A year later, all four pieces proved to be critical in the Nittany Lions’ electrifying conference tournament run, marked by triumphs over Minnesota and Ohio State.
In Penn State’s three-game stint in Indianapolis during the Big Ten Tournament, the four familiar Nittany Lions from the Patrick Chambers and Jim Ferry eras accounted for 60% of Penn State’s scoring production. Although the late-season run ultimately resulted in loss to No. 9 Purdue, the rewarding culmination of a gritty campaign served as an affirmation of their collective preseason decisions to remain in Happy Valley.
“I’m so happy with my decision of coming back here, and being coached by Coach Shrews,” Harrar said. “I’m happy I came here. I’m happy I got to play with Jalen Pickett, all those dudes. Seth Lundy, Myles Dread, Sam [Sessoms], you name them. I’m Penn State forever, and it’s been a lot of fun this year.”
Of the remaining 40% within the Nittany Lions’ total offensive yield throughout the conference tournament, 28% came directly from a previously unfamiliar focal point: Jalen Pickett. The transfer elected to trust Shewsberry as a first-time Power Five head coach and forgo a previous four-year stint at Siena. With the Saints, Pickett earned a three-time spot on the First-Team All-MAAC roster while also warranting a conference Player of the Year selection in 2020.
At first, Pickett’s former ways of torching Metro Atlantic defenses failed to produce instant success in the face of higher level opponenets. In non-confernce play featuring dates with UMass, Miami, and LSU, the New York native posted just 8.6 points per game with the inability to find consistent rythym over the eight-game span.
In the Big Ten Tournament, however, the emerging point guard carried the Nittany Lions through lethal isolation play and delivered with 18 points per matchup against far superior competition in Minnesota, Ohio State, and Purdue.
Against the Boilermakers, Pickett willed the Nittany Lions back to a one-point margin with 2:42 remaining after falling victim to a 12-point deficit midway through the second half. Down the strech, Pickett led Penn State in scoring with seven points on 60% shooting after halftime, all while playing a full 20 minutes of action.
Pickett’s individual progression not only showed his ability to compete among the likes of National Player of the Year candidate Jaden Ivey for a full 40 minutes, but it also proved the Nittany Lions weren’t scared of the moment in a win-or-go-home contest against one of the nation’s most explosive units. After all, Penn State led the top-10 Boilermakers through a commanding 15:34 first-half span.
“Each game you play in this tournament is a big game,” Pickett said. “Of course, you have to bring the energy and emotion, and we wanted everybody on our team to bring our own energy because it felt like it was basically a home game for Purdue with all their fans, and we just had a couple [fans there]. We’re always there for each other on the bench. I’m going to give success to my guys and give support whenever I can.”
Friday’s loss against Purdue will likely result as the final game in Shrewsberry’s first season at the helm. As it stands, Penn State will conclude the campaign with a 14-17 record featuring nine conference wins and marquee victories over Iowa, Michigan State, and Rutgers.
On paper, a losing record and an 11th place Big Ten finish aren’t typically deemed as omens of success. But, with the obstacles Shrewsberry faced head-on, improving the Nittany Lions’ winning total by three games from a year ago, coupled with turning a season-ending three-game losing streak into first and second round tournament victories, should be viewed as encouraging building blocks.
Out of the 14-total wins for Nittany Lions, no on-court victory proved to be more important to Shrewsberry than forming an ever-growing relationship with both Harrar and Pickett over the past 12 months. The foundation of mutual trust set the framework for the future of Penn State basketball and showed how quickly personal connections can directly translate to a winning locker room.
“Being here for a year, being able to coach [John], being able to coach Jalen, what they’ve done, not just for this week but for the entire season, man…I love these two dudes,” Shrewsberry said. “I’ll go to war with them any day of the week, and I appreciate everything they’re done for this program. I told those guys that came [that] we’re going somewhere. This program is going somewhere.”
Based on the togetherness the Nittany Lions played with in the midst of the Big Ten Tournament, it’s hard to argue with the presumption that the best has yet to surface for Penn State with Shrewsberry righting the ship.
From Harrar’s perspective, the Nittany Lions aren’t far from becoming a formidable force in the Big Ten on a basis of regularity. This season, nine of Shrewsberry’s 17 losses came by six points or fewer. With the most two-possession defeats in the conference, Penn State is set to bring back an experienced group with one full season of Shewsberry’s scheme integration under its belt.
In addition to Pickett, who already announced his intentions to return to Penn State with his fifth year of eligibility, Lundy, Dread, and Sessoms are all expected to lace it up for the Nittany Lions in Shrewberry’s second go-around. Additionally, with Dallion Johnson’s anticipated offseason growth, the three-point specialist could mold into more of a two-way threat as a junior.
Whether the Nittany Lions break through next season, or if it happens to be when Shrewsberry’s son is set to take the floor for Penn State beginning in 2023, the program is guaranteed to have at least one loyal supporter sitting right behind his former coach’s seat on the bench.
Penn State has never won a Big Ten regular-season or tournament championship in its 28 years in the conference. Still, Harrar believes his first-year head coach will finally guide the Nittany Lions toward becoming a championship-caliber program for the first time in its Big Ten history.
“Right behind you is going to be a Big Ten championship [from] Braeden Shrewsberry,” Harrar said. “And guess where I’m going to be? I know coach always says he wants me to keep playing, but I’m flying out to that game. I hope it’s right here [in Indianapolis], and I’ll be right behind the bench cheering for him. That will be one of the happiest moments of my life — seeing Penn State win a Big Ten championship.”
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