Bench Pieces Hitting Stride As Penn State Hoops’ Season Rolls On
As important as having star players on a basketball team is, no truly great team is made without a consistent, reliable bench. For Penn State’s men’s basketball, the group has struggled so far this season.
The Nittany Lions’ second unit hasn’t maintained high levels of play when the reserves hit the floor, as only two players are averaging double-digit points per game. A team always has its stars, and Penn State is no different. Kanye Clary and Ace Baldwin Jr. have been not only the best players on the blue and white this season, but they’ve been some of the best guards in the Big Ten.
Clary and Baldwin rank in the top 25 in the Big Ten in points per game at No. 6 and No. 23, respectively. Baldwin also leads the conference in steals and has 15 more than his No. 2 counterpart.
Each star needs a supporting cast: people who help create those shots, ones that play good defense and cause turnovers, and can hit the big shot when the stars run cold. Like the season itself, it has been an uphill battle for the group to find its groove throughout the season.
However, over the past several games, things have begun to look like they’re turning in the right direction for Penn State’s bench pieces. It started after the Nittany Lions’ loss to Minnesota, when Clary was injured late in the game, has since been ruled a day-to-day consideration, and missed two games so far.
In need of a fix without its star point guard, the reserves stepped up and helped Rhoades’ squad record two straight road wins.
While the points weren’t notable during the last two games, the previous five were the best of the year for Nick Kern Jr. No matter if it’s scoring, defensive, or diving on the floor for a loose ball, Kern had been one of the biggest workhorses on the team.
“He wants to do right by the coaches and his teammates,” Rhoades said. “He’s finding different ways to really help us, and he plays hard. He competes. He’s got that energy that becomes contagious.”
Filling in specifically in the starting lineup for Clary had been D’Marco Dunn. Dunn stepped up for Penn State in the previous two wins. He scored 14 and 10 points, respectively, in the two games starting for Clary and is continuing to provide excellent play as the season moves along.
“He’s showing flashes of it, and you saw that in these last two games in the starting lineup. So really proud of him,” Rhoades said. “I just keep saying, ‘Just keep learning.’ Keep working on your game, keep learning, keep listening, and then go play basketball because you’re good at it.”
The biggest “surprise” of the recent games has been the great play from a group of players who struggled heavily this season. Zach Hicks and Jameel Brown both had one of the best performances of the season in the win over Indiana, and Puff Johnson played one of his more efficient games of the year. Hicks especially showed flashes of the type of player that Nittany Lion fans were hoping to get from the Temple transfer.
Hicks finished with a season-high 19 points from 50% shooting from the field and three-point land. He also added five rebounds and, throughout the game, played outstanding defense, helping create many Indiana turnovers.
Brown drilled four threes and scored 14 points, the most he’s had in a game since the first game of the season. Despite only posting four points and four rebounds, Johnson also showed tremendous defensive moments in the game, and it felt that he was all over the floor throughout the entire 40 minutes.
“When they’re making shots, and they’re impacting the offensive, we’re just a better team. Let’s call it as it is,” Rhoades said. “It’s great to see them do that. It’s great to see them do that on the road. I hope what they went through here just gives them more confidence. I hope they say, ‘Hey, I can do this. I could do this at a high level,’ and let’s continue to build on it.”
They stepped up massively, filling the role and hitting the shots that Clary normally would sink. It’s an optimistic sign to see guys like Hicks and Brown causing opposing game plans to shift mid-game. Johnson had his role change throughout the season, filling into any position he could and adapting as the season winds down.
“When that ball is moving and we’re flowing and all that stuff, we’re just a better basketball team, no matter who’s on the court,” Rhoades said. “When you play that way, you’re just harder to guard, and I really believe in that way and that’s the culture of our program is: be so unselfish. Share that basketball, go be a player, and go make plays but really share the basketball on one end of the court, and the other end to be there for your teammates when they need you on defense.”
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