If you’re still stung by Saturday’s football game, hope waits just around the corner. The men’s basketball season starts on Friday, November 10th against Campbell University at the Bryce Jordan Center. Pat Chambers has his best roster since arriving in State College, with all five starters returning from a team that struggled with consistency, but proved capable of hanging with the Big Ten’s best.
With a talented roster come increased expectations, and it will be difficult to continue to defend Chambers if the team is unable to improve and reach the postseason this year. Having said that, the BSD Basketbros have shared their thoughts on how the season will play out. Are we setting ourselves up for disappointment, or is this the year the Flaming Bus carries us to the promised land?
Penn State should get a boost this season by returning all five of their starters from the 2016-17 campaign. How far will that boost carry these Lions, though? There are some other teams returning a lot of talent, and some of them did better than Penn State last year. Just look at Michigan State, Northwestern, Minnesota, and Purdue. It's hard to imagine Penn State cracking the top third of the conference, but it can still make the NCAA Tournament if it surpasses teams like Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin that are missing multiple star players from last year. If that happens, the Lions would find themselves in the top half of the Big Ten with an NCAA Tournament bid within reach. That all depends on Tony Carr becoming a more efficient scorer, Josh Reaves continuing to grow on offense, Shep Garner becoming a more consistent knock-down shooter, and the bench producing a lot more than last year's reserves. I think enough goes right for a 9-9 Big Ten record and this program's first trip to the big dance since 2011.
Penn State doesn't usually find itself returning all five starters on from the prior season. Even more rare is the instance when those starters are actually good players across the board. The Nittany Lions have a great opportunity in front of them this season. They have a weak enough out of conference schedule that wins will be had (anything from 11 to 13 wins is possible), and a conference schedule that, while not as easy as last season's is still forgiving enough to provide confidence to this team early. If Penn State can take last season's experiences and return more focused and ready to close out all the tough games, a 24-7, 13-5 record is within reach. If we see some of the same problems we saw last season, we could be looking at a 21-10, 9-9 record. If disaster happens, and Penn State falls flat in conference play like they did in D.J. Newbill's senior season, it will be Chambers's last year as the Nittany Lions head coach.
Pat Chambers has been on the hot seat with some fans for a few years now while having the support of the athletic department. This season could end those thoughts if Chambers can guide the team to the NCAA tournament. Should the team fall slightly short and make the NIT, that would be enough for most fans to accept as legitimate progress. The difference between this coming season and the past seasons with Chambers at the helm is that the team has enough horses to make a run.
With the addition of Satchel Pierce, the team now has three players that can play the five position on the court, all with experience. Julian Moore, Mike Watkins and Pierce will make it easier for the Lions to swap out big men during the pounding of the Big Ten season. While it is uncertain how much productivity in terms of numbers Moore and Pierce will add to Watkins, it is certain that the pair will allow Watkins a chance to avoid foul trouble. Also Watkins will now be able to play power forward when it is strategically beneficial. That is the main point that some people not expecting this team to make an NCAA tournament run are missing in my opinion; Chambers finally has enough reliable players to employ strategic substitutions.
Not only does this team have 'one of each' in terms of having a player at each spot, 1-5, that can play, it has multiple players. There are three competent point guards, and a half-dozen players that can play two or as a third guard. While Davis Zemgulis has not yet shown his offensive promise that he reportedly had when he arrived at Penn State, he has the body of a small-forward and has shown surprising ability and willingness to play defense. Add that to Lamar Stevens and you have two players that can play a traditional small-forward. The fact that PSU has only four players that it knows that it can count on to play the 4 and 5 heading into the season, that is not a major concern, as Chambers will play 3-guard sets frequently.
My projection is that the team will make the NCAA tournament. I'm not sure what the record will be. There will probably be a time when the team loses a few Big Ten games in a row and everything looks bleak. There will be times when some fans have written the team off while others quietly hang on. It won't be easy or an uninterrupted upward trajectory, but this team will persevere, win a game or two in the Big Ten tourney, and go to the Big Dance.
Without question, this is the most pivotal season in Pat Chambers' head coaching career. After the disappointing finish to end last season, Penn State will need to at the very least, make the NIT in order for Pat to keep his job. Granted, an NCAA Tournament berth would be the best way to Coach Chambers to ensure he's in Happy Valley for the long-term and he may very well have that caliber of a team. Senior Shep Garner (can't believe I'm typing that already) seems poised to have his best career season, yet as the team's 3-point specialist with Tony Carr once again running the point and Josh Reaves and Lamar Stevens on the wings with Mike Watkins manning the middle. What could set apart this season's squad from previous iterations is the quality of the bench, as Satchel Pierce should be able to provide some quality minutes as a sub for Watkins or even with the two of them playing in the post together, not to mention fifth-year senior Julian Moore will also be able to provide some key minutes. Nazeer Bostick and Jamari Wheeler should also provide some backcourt depth, particularly Wheeler as a guy who can give Carr a few minutes to sit on the bench and catch his breath. Perhaps we may see Davis Zemgulis, Trent Buttrick, or even John Harrar squeeze into the rotation, if only for a few minutes, but that remains to be seen.
The schedule sets up nicely for a team trying to rack up non-conference wins, and I could easily see this team winning 11 or more of said non-con games. The Big Ten slate may present opportunities, as Ohio State and their lack of depth will be one of a handful of home-and-home games, and they don't have to travel to Wisconsin, Minnesota, or Michigan. Indiana may be going through a transition period of their own, as well. I'll go ahead and predict this team wins anywhere between 7 and 9 games in-conference and makes a serious push for an NIT or NCAA bid (the latter being way more preferable, of course, but baby steps).
As we head into the season, the starting lineup does not present any glaring holes. Outside of Michigan State, they should be able to compete with any team in the Big Ten. The bench players are more unproven. Can Satchel Pierce provide consistent production off the bench, and prevent a significant drop-off in production when Mike Watkins is in foul trouble? Can Jamari Wheeler be trusted to carry the ball throughout the conference slate, or will Chambers have to call upon Shep Garner to run the offense when Tony Carr is off the court? The fact that the answers aren’t emphatically, “No,” is encouraging.
I think Nazeer Bostick will be looked upon as one of the most improved players for the team this year, with his ability to contribute in many different ways even if he’s not lighting up the scoreboard. A healthy Julian Moore in a supporting role makes him a good candidate to be the latest Penn State forward to win over the fan base in his final year of eligibility.
A weak non-conference schedule, and a 1-1 split against Iowa and Wisconsin in early December, sets Penn State up for a 13-2 start to the season. Despite the strength of schedule, that kind of start puts them on a path towards the postseason. In conference play, Chambers and Co. reach the 10-win mark, and the Big Ten tournament ends up being more about seeding than earning an invitation to the Big Dance. Either Tony Carr or Lamar Stevens earn All-B1G honors, and the Pat Chambers era continues.