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Penn State vs. VMI Preview: Nittany Lions Begin a New Era Against an Old Friend

The Keydets will undergo a metamorphosis of their own as a familiar Penn State face starts his head coaching career.

Michael Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports
Who: VMI Keydets
When: Saturday, 1:00 p.m. ET
Where: Bryce Jordan Center
TV: BTN Plus (Web only)
KenPom Rank: 202
Vegas Line: PSU -7

Saturday marks eleven years to the day that Penn State last lost its season opener. In 2004 the Nittany Lions gave up 82 points to Illinois State at a neutral site and lost by 9. Shockingly enough, Ed DeChellis' bunch went on to lose 23 games that season, but since then Penn State hasn't suffered any opening night jitters.

It's a new era in Happy Valley. There's no Talor Battle, no Tim Frazier, and no D.J. Newbill on this roster. Pat Chambers has preached ball movement and unselfishness this summer, and that shift in emphasis is working, at least when no one is (supposed to be) watching:

That's notable considering the Nittany Lions didn't hit more than 11 threes in a game last season, but there's no substitute for the real thing.

One player that did make an impression in that scrimmage was Payton Banks. According to his head coach, the redshirt sophomore from California fought his way into the starting frontcourt along with Brandon Taylor and rim-protector Jordan Dickerson. Josh Reaves will become the second freshman to start the opener in two years. The first, Shep Garner, will start at the point.

Scouting The Opposition

So can VMI re-create what Illinois State accomplished over a decade ago? They're certainly used to scoring 82 points a night. The Keydets have developed a reputation as the fastest team in the country, and that's not just an eyeball thing - the Runnin' Roos used 77.1 possessions per 40 minutes in 2014-15. Penn State, by comparison, played faster than anyone in the B1G last year and still only averaged 65.9 possessions per game.

But that may be the old VMI. Their coach of ten years, Duggar Baucom, was lured away by arch rival The Citadel this summer. Enter Dan Earl (or Danny Earl as some of you shootyhoop lifers may know him). Earl was a mainstay of early 90s Penn State backcourts who then picked up the clipboard as an assistant under Ed DeChellis in 2006. He followed when DeChellis jumped ship for Navy and finally got his big break this summer when the Keydets came calling. Earl's experience recruiting for a military school makes him uniquely qualified for the job, but the early on-court product could be a little disjointed. Finding a balance between the plodding, shot clock-eating style of his coaching mentor and VMI's trademark run and gun will be crucial in his first season.

The good news for Earl is that the Roos return nearly every major piece from 2014-15. The bad news is that the per game numbers that these guys posted are vastly inflated due to VMI's pace of play. For instance, Q.J. Peterson, who only played in 18 games due to injury, averaged 19.6 points per contest last year on just 34% shooting from the field. Those numbers make Terran Petteway look like Jahlil Okafor.

What To Watch For

VMI's rapid play also allowed them to play effective small ball for years, but there's a player on this roster whose numbers I frankly can't wrap my head around. Philip Anglade played "center" for the Keydets last season, averaging 8.9 points on a very respectable 60% shooting to go with 5.8 boards a night. All pretty standard numbers for someone playing 23.1 minutes a night.

Here's where it gets nuts: Anglade blocked 2.9 shots a game, an impressive figure even in that uptempo system. In fact, his block% was even better than Jordan Dickerson's. Did I mention Anglade is 6'5"? This is pure speculation - full disclosure, I did not watch a single VMI game last year - but he must be the king of chasing down layups on the fast break. That's the only way to explain that. So needless to say, I'm very much looking forward to seeing this anomaly play on Saturday.


Crazy numbers aside, there's only one clear favorite here. There's a reason the Keydets went 11-19 last year and only beat three D-1 teams in their non-con. They simply don't have the talent to go toe-to-toe with high major opponents and come away without getting boatraced. And if Earl decides to park the proverbial bus and use all of that 30-second shot clock the Nittany Lions will have a field day in the paint. Put me down for Penn State 79, VMI 67. Welcome back, hoops.