The emphasis coming into the 2016-17 season for Penn State Basketball was all on the new up-tempo offense and scoring in transition, but the biggest difference between this year’s team and the one that finished 16-16 last year is on defense.
While true freshmen Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens are discovering what works for them and what doesn’t on the offensive side of the floor, last year’s fresh faces have turned Penn State into the Big Ten’s second most efficient defense (according to KenPom).
Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins were both part of the 2015 recruiting class, but Reaves had his productivity last year hampered by a bout of mononucleosis, and Watkins missed the entire campaign due to academic issues. Now that both guys are on the court in their sophomore seasons (Watkins is a redshirt freshman), Penn State’s defense has take a huge step forward.
Watkins has been more than an adequate replacement for Jordan Dickerson on the inside with his 2.9 blocks and 8.4 rebounds per game. The Philadelphia native has also shown a surprising scoring touch for someone who was considered very raw when he was first recruited.
On the perimeter, Reaves uses his length and athleticism to fight through screens and keep opposing guards off their game. Last Saturday at The Palestra, he held Michigan State’s Eron Harris to eight points on 2-for-6 shooting. Pat Chambers made sure to praise him during the coach’s Wednesday press conference.
“His defense on Saturday was probably the best defense I’ve seen in a long time in my 14, 15 years of Division-I basketball,” Chambers said. “I mean he was unbelievable taking away Eron Harris’ stuff on screens. He did a phenomenal job.
It’s still very early in conference season, but Penn State’s interesting combination of quick offense and stifling defense could make the Lions a very tough out for the rest of the campaign. The 2016 recruiting class might get all the hype, but it’s the 2015 class that’s making the biggest difference in Penn State’s fortunes so far.