It has been well documented that the Penn State football team faced adversity on the field due to a lack in number of players for the past few seasons. What isn't as well known is the fact that the men's basketball team and hockey team have had a similar uphill battle due to lack of available scholarship athletes. It's amazing that between the three programs, there hasn't been a single losing season over the past two years. Each team has found a way to compete while facing a deficiency in numbers and at times talent.
We'll take a look at how that will change in 2016-17 for the better.
Penn State Football
Under the original sanctions handed down by the NCAA in 2012, Penn State football was set to field a team in 2016 that featured only 65 scholarship athletes with an incoming class restricted to 15 players. On September 24, 2013, the sanctions were reduced, allowing the team to bring in additional recruits per season, and increasing the total scholarship players allowed to 75 in 2014, 80 in 2015, and back to the normal 85 for 2016. On September 8, 2014, the restrictions on incoming players and total scholarships were lifted, allowing the team to bring in 25 players each season for a total of 85 scholarships.
While the lifting of the sanctions on scholarship player numbers was welcomed, the shift was not immediately helpful for the team. It takes time to bring in players, develop the talent to a game-ready status, and see results on the field. Last season Penn State had more than 80 scholarship players for the first time since the NCAA sanctions hit, though many of the players were not available to play. Redshirts, injuries, and players not ready for prime-time, held the available number of scholarship players for Coach Franklin and his staff to deploy at around 60 oftentimes throughout the season.
This year the total number of scholarship players on the team will increase slightly, but the total number of available players should increase significantly. The remaining question will be whether or not the available players are up to speed enough to compete effectively at the level of competition that the Lions will face. Some of the young players, such as running backs Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders, are expected to make an impact. Other underclassmen, mostly the offensive line players, may still need another season to prepare for the big stage. This unfortunately coincides with the hole in Penn State's on-field roster for the past couple of years. While the offensive line's available players on game-day will remain at the low end this season, the talent level in practice, and the total number of players available at practice, is increasing to pre-sanction levels. That may pay off this season on the field even if the younger, more talented players sit and watch on game days.
The football team has really hung in there for the past few years, facing a tremendous amount of adversity in addition to competing and practicing with fewer players than their opponents. It will be a welcomed change for the team to have the ability to match other Big Ten squads in both talent and number of players in the coming years.
Penn State Basketball
While the basketball team has not faced a reduction of scholarships over the past few seasons, the team has frequently played with fewer than the 13 scholarship players allowed by the NCAA. In Pat Chambers' first season with the team, 2011, the roster had zero seniors. It also had three walk-ons that would later gain a scholarship in Kevin Montminy, Nick Colella, and Alan Wisniewski. Eight of the thirteen players listed on the roster in 2011 left Penn State with eligibility remaining. These factors created a deficit in available scholarship players in the following seasons.
Early in the 2012-13 season the team was dealt a blow when Tim Frazier, the team's projected leader on the floor, went down with a season-ending injury in the fourth game of the season. The injury to Frazier left the team with four guards on scholarship, and John Johnson had to sit out due to transfer. In addition, Akosa Maduegbunam was not ready to compete at the Big Ten level. The team regularly featured two scholarship guards, Newbill and Marshall, along with newly rewarded former walk-on Nick Colella and walk-on Kevin Montminy. That team only had two big men that produced at respectable levels, with Sasa Borovnjak adding offense midway through the season and Ross Travis rebounding and later scoring consistently. For Chambers, it was impossible to employ multiple-guard sets when there are only four guards getting meaningful minutes. The lack of numbers also took away the option of sporadic pressing, which has benefited the team in recent seasons.
In 2013-14, the team on paper had filled out the roster, but the big men on the court were rushed into service, and could have used a year or two to develop. As a result, the team finished 16-18 with heavy contributions for Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill on the perimeter. The team lacked the strength in the paint to compete on a level playing field with many of its opponents. The lack of available productive big men once again limited the strategy that coach Chambers could use throughout the year.
2014-15 saw the team once again with an acceptable number of players on roster, but still not quite ready to compete in the paint. Jordan Dickerson showed a few flashes of what he could be at his best, but consistency was an issue. Redshirt freshman Julian Moore played sparingly, and as a result the team was once again out-numbered on the low post for most of the season. The team rode a spectacular senior season by D.J. Newbill to an 18-16 record, but was unable to compete in the Big Ten due to a lack of balance on the floor.
The team last season began to take on the look of what is to come this year and the near future for the program. While only ten players contributed significantly, there was a balance of guards and post players available to coach Chambers. The surprise academic redshirt of Mike Watkins just prior to the season left the team down one post player. However, for the first time in the Chambers era, the team had four productive players it could deploy to the low-post. While Donovon Jack did not produce to the level that some fans would have liked to see, his play along with Jordan Dickerson's emergence gave the team bodies on the post that could hold off opponents better than the team had in the recent past. Julian Moore showed flashes of the offensive weapon and solid power forward that he may become in the future. Brandon Taylor's low-post scoring added a dimension that the team hadn't had since Sasa Borovnjak's late-season emergence in 2012. Davis Zemgulis and Josh Reaves played solidly considering their youth and showed glimpses at the overall talent level and athleticism that is now filling out the roster. For the first time in Chambers' tenure, he had 'one of each' in terms of players to deploy strategically. Low post, guards, small forwards, all on the floor at the same time.
This season marks the first time that Pat Chambers will have not just one of each, but several players at each position that should be ready to produce. Satchel Pierce, the 7'0" transfer center from Virginia Tech, will have to sit out the year. That may prove to be a significant loss when Penn State matches up with the beefier teams on the schedule. Julian Moore, Mike Watkins, and Joe Hampton are not prototypical centers, much better suited to play power forward, but the talent level that the trio of PSU big men will have on the court is better than we have seen in years.
The 2016-17 team will feature three red-shirt juniors along with junior leader Shep Garner. While the team is absent of seniors, the leadership equation should be fine. For the first time in the Chambers era, he will have twelve scholarship players to deploy, all with the talent needed to compete at the Big Ten level. The readiness and maturity of the young players will be a factor that will likely determine the success of the team. As the talent level of the incoming recruits continues to rise, the likelihood of that talent being ready to contribute immediately increases as well. With Shep Garner's performance through two seasons, and Josh Reaves' emergence as a defensive menace and scoring contributor in his rookie season, there is reason to believe that the six new players available to Chambers this year could make an immediate impact.
Terrence Samuel, a transfer point guard from UConn, should be ready to play significant minutes, taking some of the ball-handling pressures off Shep Garner. Isaiah Washington proved last season that he can be counted on off the bench for productive depth. Incoming freshman point guard Tony Carr could be a game-changer if he is ready to go from day one.
Last season we saw glimpses of what a small forward can accomplish when Davis Zemgulis had moments of brilliance. Zemgulis averaged 9.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per 40 minutes played as a true freshman. Not since David Jackson has Penn State seen what a true small forward can accomplish on the court. In 2016-17 the team will add Lamar Stevens, Nazeer Bostick and Joe Hampton to the roster, all players with small-forward capabilities. Add that to Shep Garner, Josh Reaves, and Payton Bank's ability to slash through the lane for high-percentage drives, and Penn State opponents may find themselves the victims of a death by a thousand cuts. No longer will the team rely on one player, or one type of offensive approach, to carry the load offensively. With the additional athleticism that the team has gained, it is likely that opponents will have to deal with a healthy dose of pressing as well, with Josh Reaves cherry picking lazy passes.
With all of the focus being given to the quality of the recruits that Chambers has been able to bring into the program over the past couple of seasons, the quantity is equally as impressive and important.
Penn State Hockey
The hockey team is in a similar place as the football and basketball teams. This will be the fifth season for the team at the division one level of competition. As a result, the program didn't have its first full class of division one caliber recruits until last season. Last season's stellar recruiting class produced to the tune of 50 goals, 35% of the team's overall total. There is reason to believe that the current group of incoming players will exceed that production in 2016-17.
The biggest difference between the hockey program and other sports is that the players that the team is adding to the roster this year are a couple of years older than traditional freshmen entering college. Of the seven players entering the program this season as freshmen, three will be nineteen years old and four will be twenty years old. The players have been playing in extremely competitive hockey leagues for the past few years prior to joining the Lions. To compare to football and basketball, it would be similar to adding junior college transfers, only the players still have four years of college eligibility remaining.
That being said, it is expected that the players will develop and improve in their four seasons with Penn State. So like the other programs, this incoming class of players is the foundation for the future. While the players may be game-ready this season, in the years to come their overall talent should increase. The names on the back of the sweaters won't change much over the next few years, but the product on the ice should continue to improve.
The hockey program will have just six upperclassmen in 2016-17, five seniors and one junior. James Robinson is currently listed as a junior, but he missed all but one game last season due to injury and will likely gain a red-shirt season. It is likely that the team will add at least one more goalie to the team prior to the start of the season. It could add an additional skater as well.
Guy Gadowsky's team has put together two consecutive winning seasons. The only other Big Ten teams that have accomplished that in the same span are Michigan and Minnesota. That's amazing when you consider the fact that Penn State played with fewer players than any other team in the league last year (24). The other Big Ten teams skated with an average of 27 players per team. This became a factor several times last season due to injuries. The Lions played three games last year with two fewer players than is allowed, and several more games skating with one player under the maximum. This created problems with substitutions in addition to taking a toll on the stamina of the team overall.
And still with this disadvantage in numbers and skill, the team was able to win 21 games and remain in the hunt for an at-large NCAA tournament birth until the final week of the season. It will be fun to see what the program will do this season, and in the coming years, with an equal number of players and talent as their opponents.