Micah Shrewsberry, Penn State Hoops’ Seniors Set Framework For Program’s Future Despite NCAA Tournament Second-Round Loss
When Micah Shrewsberry took over Penn State men’s basketball on March 15, 2021, the first-time Power Six head coach immediately had his work cut out ahead of him upon stepping into his Bryce Jordan Center office.
While Shrewsberry had nearly seven full months until the commencement of his initial campaign in Happy Valley, his tallest task was recruiting a litany of then-current roster pieces who elected to test the transfer portal’s depths after Jim Ferry was let go of the interim tag.
Upon the time of his hiring, eight Nittany Lions on a roster of 16 commodities re-opened their pledges to Penn State in favor of other destinations. Remarkably, Shrewsberry won over the services of Seth Lundy, Myles Dread, and John Harrar without ever manning the sidelines at a high-profile level.
“I told those guys, like Seth and Myles, they didn’t have to stay,” Shrewsberry said after his squad’s second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Texas. “There were two routes to take — there was the easy route, and there was the hard route. They chose the hard route.”
Initially, the terrain of the road less traveled proved to be rocky for the returning veterans, marked by a 25-point road rout against UMass during Shrewsberry’s second contest heading the troops during his first seasonal go-around. The bitter battle was only accentuated by Trent Buttrick’s career outing, marked by a 19-point, nine-rebound showing at the expense of his former unit.
The early, non-conference wake-up call propelled Penn State toward seven Big Ten victories a year ago, highlighted by marquee triumphs over No. 19 Michigan State, Iowa, and Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament. Moreover, eight of the Nittany Lions’ 13 conference falters came by six points or less.
Although Penn State found itself on the worsened side of a winning clip last year behind a 14-17 record, several highly-touted freshmen prospects saw Shrewsberry’s unique, “gritty, not pretty” brand, heard his pitch, and also elected to take an adverse avenue by committing to the untraditional power.
Shrewsberry’s five-man freshmen unit, consisting of Kebba Njie, Jameel Brown, Kanye Clary, Evan Mahaffey, and Demetrius Lilley, helped Penn State compile a top-30 recruiting class for its highest-ranked signing cycle in school history.
Nearly all of the Nittany Lions’ scoring production from its most recent run will be non-existent heading into next October — and to the veterans, that’s OK.
“What Coach Shrewsberry is doing, and the freshman group we have now, they’re going to make huge strides in the future,” Lundy said. “And, he’s going to continue to bring in more great players in the future, being the great coach that he is.”
After all, Shrewsberry garnered the pledges of generational contributors in Jalen Pickett, Andrew Funk, and Cam Wynter through the transfer portal’s passageway. Albeit untraditional, Shrewsberry surgically assembled a 15-man group that won Penn State its first NCAA Tournament battle in 22 years.
While Pickett and Funk were held to quieter nights, amounting to 11 and 12 points, respectively, to Texas’ stifling defense, the pair helped cultivate an 11-0 run midway through the second half to cut the Longhorns’ edge to a one-point margin.
From 4:17 on, the Nittany Lions went cold with Texas clinging to a 58-57 lead, characterized by a pair of costly turnovers and an 0-for-4 shooting stretch until the matchup was all-but bowed up with 55 seconds to go.
Ultimately, Shrewsberry’s crew fell valiantly to the nation’s No. 5 unit, according to the AP’s final, pre-tournament poll. But, with his senior class carrying Penn State to 23 total wins, the Nittany Lions are well past the “moral victory” phase.
“We’re not going to be satisfied with this,” Shrewsberry said. “It’s like, alright, cool, let’s, 10 years from now, let’s go back to the tournament. No, we worked for it every single day. There’s a lot that goes into it… That’s what we’re gearing up to do and that’s what we’re trying to do each and every year.”
Across the campaign’s onset, Shrewsberry’s consistent rotation morphed into an eight-man shuffle, including the likes of three rookies in Kebba Njie, Evan Mahaffey, and Kanye Clary. While Njie started 26 of 37 matchups, Mahaffey and Clary flowered as ultimate role pieces, as displayed in individual performances against Indiana and Maryland.
During the early January date with the Hoosiers, Mahaffey reached the double-digit point benchmark for the first time while donning the blue and white, defined by a 12-point run at the Hoosiers’ expense in only 13 minutes played. In a tight, 74-68 loss at Maryland nearly a month later, Clary cemented himself as a potential long-spanning weapon by tallying a 17-point output in a career-high 23-minute span.
While the young pieces were called into action sparingly in the place of older, more experienced veteran staples, Njie, Mahaffey, and Clary all showed their broadly untapped potential when gifted extended minutes in Shrewsberry’s system. In order to return to the postseason’s main event on a basis of regularity, all three incoming sophomores will be tasked as tone-setters in likely starting positions throughout year three of Shrewsberry’s stronghold.
“These guys aren’t satisfied, the young guys aren’t satisfied with being here one time and setting a bunch of school records and everything else,” Shrewsberry said. “We’re all competitors. You want to win. I hate losing just as much as anybody else.”
Following Shrewsberry’s squad’s output against the Longhorns, the Nittany Lions concluded the campaign at a 72.2 points per game clip offensively, good for the seventh-highest-scoring unit in the Big Ten. Last year, Penn State ranked dead last within the conference in the offensively statistical category, producing just 64.6 points each go-around in 31 games played.
For the entirety of Penn State basketball’s 126-year existence, no Nittany Lions program has seen a larger, more expansive jump from one campaign to the next than from Shrewsberry’s first to second year with the reigns.
Replacing an All-American, a detailed three-point specialist, and a steady ball-handling presence will automatically set any unit back, regardless of returners set to remain onsite. But, with another top-40 recruiting class inked and a slew of transfer prospects set to visit Happy Valley, the framework is in place to immediately expand off of a season soon-to-be etched within the program’s rafters.
“I feel like this team in particular definitely laid down a foundation for Penn State in the future…,” Lundy said. “…I’ve seen growth in all five [freshmen], and they want to be [in the tournament] every single year. I talked to them after the game. They said ‘We’re going to be back’… Penn State is going to be back to the tournament.”
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