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Putting Jalen Pickett’s Historic Season For Penn State Hoops In Perspective

Behind the veteran leadership of Jalen Pickett commanding the backcourt for Penn State men’s basketball, the Nittany Lions amassed 19 regular season victories, their most since the program was robbed of an NCAA Tournament bid during the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset. 

While Pickett accounted for 16 points per matchup throughout his squad’s six-game postseason run across the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, his historical season-long output was nearly lost in translation during the Nittany Lions’ abrupt ending in the Big Dance followed by an unprecedented transitional period. 

During Pickett’s initial campaign donning the blue and white, the former Siena transfer adjusted to the Big Ten level by posting 14.3 points, 4.7 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per outing, despite averaging just 10 points throughout the Nittany Lions’ eight-game non-conference slate. 

The New York native morphed into an All-Big Ten caliber force in the conference tournament, where he first displayed his unique paint prowess for the first time with the Nittany Lions by scoring 19 points per contest against Minnesota, Ohio State, and Purdue. 

Former head coach Micah Shrewsberry said he didn’t know Pickett “could post until [last] January,” during the unit’s recent NCAA Tournament run, but that’s exactly how the versatile weapon transformed his skillset throughout his fifth-year excursion.

Within Pickett’s first 10 bouts during his last go-around, the cornerstone notched 20 points or more in four individual battles. During the span, Pickett put his post prowess on full display, eclipsing a 69% shooting clip from two-point territory. 

But, Pickett’s scoring alone didn’t solely position the All-American threat into the limelight as a fifth-year staple. The facilitator increased his assist figures by almost two-fold, resulting in seven per game in 10 matchups before the brunt of Big Ten play. 

On January 19, Pickett was added to the midseason watchlist for the Oscar Robertson Trophy, presented each season to college basketball’s most valuable player. At the halfway mark, Pickett earned the distinction as the only player nationally posting at least 17 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds per game. 

At the rate of his initial tear, the versatile game wrecker would’ve become just the second player over the last 30 years to finish with the gaudy stat line beside Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine in 2015. 

Although Pickett concluded the non-conference stint on scout’s radars, his post-New Year stretch accounts for one of the most dominant individual periods in Penn State men’s basketball’s 126-year history. 

Beginning on January 1, the two-way guard gripped Iowa’s defense for 26 points, including seven rebounds and six assists, for an upset home victory over the favored Hawkeyes. Sitting on an 11-3 record with the potential to sneak into the thick of the AP Poll, Pickett continued his individual roll for two consecutive 26-point dates with Michigan and Purdue, but the two losses spearheaded a bleak 11-game stretch for Shrewsberry’s battered bunch. 

After a 79-69 falter in Ann Arbor, Pickett’s averages remained steady over nearly the next dozen outings, but his supporting cast suffered. At the campaign’s conclusion, the Nittany Lions made the most single-season three-pointers in Big Ten history, netting 384 conversions from beyond the arc on almost 39% shooting. 

But, during the crew’s dismal 3-8 span, Penn State shot just 46% from all areas of the floor, while its three-point percentage dipped almost 3%. 

Pickett, on the other hand, put Shrewsberry’s struggling lineup on his back, posting 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 6.2 assists on a nightly basis throughout the skid. 

However, the script completely flipped over the Nittany Lions’ remaining 12 matchups, resulting in a 5-1 conclusion to the regular season. Needing to will Penn State back into NCAA contention, Pickett upped his scoring average to a conference-leading 21.7 points per game from February 14 to March 5, while upping his assists figure to a 7.2 average. 

On the former end of the winning streak, the New York product scored 41, 32, and 23 against Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio State, respectively, in three must-win contests. His 40-piece outing at the Bryce Jordan Center at the Illini’s expense was the most of any Penn State hooper since 1961 and ended as the highest-scoring individual effort in the Big Ten last season. 

Needing just one win in the Big Ten Tournament to likely secure the Nittany Lions’ first berth to the Big Dance since 2011, Pickett’s selflessness was personified by a 12-point, eight-assist, and eight-rebound performance against Illinois in a crucial 79-76 triumph. 

Pickett averaged 24.3 points per battle throughout Penn State’s season-long, three-game sweep of Illinois, largely through stifling post play, forcing the defense to either bring double-team coverage or to let the guard work with his back to the basket. 

Following his squad’s defeat, Brad Underwood coined the phrase “booty ball,” a term for Pickett’s unique repertoire that he learned to embrace in the NCAA Tournament. 

“They go to booty ball, and it’s really, really hard to guard,” Underwood said after Illinois’ Big Ten Tournament loss. “When you can keep possession of the ball for 12, 13 seconds and just keep backing up, and you have no recourse in how you guard it because you can’t touch them, it becomes very challenging.”

Pickett’s four-game Big Ten Tournament showing earned him All-Tournament Team honors, as the Nittany Lions made their first championship game appearance since 2011. While his 16.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists each outing wasn’t enough to dethrone Purdue in the title showing, his well-rounded style arguably reached its peak before March Madness’ commencement. 

When Penn State drew seventh-seeded Texas A&M as its first-round opponent in Des Moines, Iowa, to kick off the Big Dance, analysts expected the perimeter trio of Wade Taylor IV, Dexter Dennis, and Tyrece Radford to slow down Pickett’s usual productivity, but the pure-play scorer shell-shocked the SEC runner-ups. 

While Andrew Funk’s 27-point performance stole the show behind an 8-for-10 display from distance against the Aggies, Pickett dropped 19 of his own and had eight assists, largely on kick-outs to Funk, and seven rebounds. 

“[Pickett] is an elite level passer that, when your rotation happens, whatever you’re going to do, the decision is happening now,” Texas A&M coach Buzz Williams said postgame. “I think that that’s why their basket assist rate is so high, and I also think because they play with the floor spread so much, 22 is with the ball. They play with a low turnover rate, and then as soon as you make your decision on how you’re going to help, it’s going to lead to an immediate three or one more [pass].”

Riding high, Pickett couldn’t overcome Texas under his own accord in the second round, falling victim to an 11-point and a season-high seven-turnover display in the 71-66 defeat. 

Regardless of the setback, Pickett rightfully concluded his Penn State career as one of the program’s most individually impactful products of all time. 

Breaking it down further, Pickett concluded his second year donning the blue and white as the only Division I men’s college basketball player to amass 17.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 6.6 assists each game, while also shooting at least 50% from the field. 

Moreover, Pickett ranked top-15 nationally in assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.89) while also guiding the Nittany Lions to the fourth-fewest turnovers per battle with only nine. 

Despite averaging 19.2 points in Big Ten play, Pickett set the Penn State single-season record with 243 assists on the campaign, while tying the program’s field-goal record with 260 made attempts. 

Amongst conference leaders, Pickett finished fourth in scoring, fifth in rebounding, first in assists, second in assist-to-turnover ratio, and fourth in field goal percentage in the Big Ten. 

The analytics further Pickett’s individual impact to unprecedented heights. According to metrics, Pickett’s “value over replacement player”, which accounts for a box-score estimate of the points per possession that an individual contributed over a replacement-level player translated to a 31-game season, turned out to be 6.6. 

Essentially, Pickett’s production accounted for a 6.6-point difference for the Nittany Lions on a game-by-game basis. If Penn State functioned without Pickett, its sterling 23-14 record would’ve dropped to a 15-22 mark, according to analytics based on its individual victory margins. 

Men lie, women lie, but, in the end, numbers don’t. Pickett’s individual campaign, which cemented Penn State hoops back into the national spotlight, deserves to be celebrated, despite the program’s recent overhaul.

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About the Author

Connor Krause

Connor Krause is a senior from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania double majoring in journalism and business. He is a lifelong Penn State football and basketball fan and enjoys rooting for Pittsburgh sports teams. In his free time, Connor can be found playing golf or pick-up basketball. You can follow his Twitter and Instagram @ckrause_31.

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