Tony Carr committed to play basketball at Penn State a little less than three years ago. A year later he arrived on campus for a freshman campaign focused mostly on learning how to compete at the Big Ten level. During his sophomore season he became a player that is now being viewed as irreplaceable by nervous fans and sports writers.
Not long ago, just a handful of months, many people began to feel that it was time to pull the plug on the coaching tenure of Pat Chambers; they had seen enough. The explanation by Chambers and his supporters that the team was close to breaking through had worn thin on many people; they had been hearing that for years.
An improbable run from mid-January to the finish of the season proved that the wait to break through was worth it. Pat Chambers’ squad rolled to an NIT Championship following a solid season that nearly ended with a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The time to wait in faith was over.
Then Tony Carr announced that he was going to try his luck at the professional level. Carr was the first player from Penn State to be drafted by an NBA team since Calvin Booth was selected in 1999. It was a massive victory for Chambers and the program. Many current and former players acknowledged it as such.
Special congratulations to @Tone10Carr proud of you Lil homie.... this is major for our program, us alumni work so hard for people to give our program the respect we deserve. To hear ya name get called was a fulfilling moment for us, well deserved #WeAre ⚪️ ⚪️— Dj Newbill (@djnewbill) June 22, 2018
Newbill’s sentiment was a reminder that while Carr had accomplished a personal goal, there were many people that paved the way to make it possible for him to find a path to the NBA through Happy Valley. Just a few short years ago it would have been outlandish to predict that Pat Chambers would be able to bring in a player so talented; able to play just two seasons at Penn State before being selected in the NBA draft.
It took a great deal of work on the recruiting trail for Chambers to bring in Carr and the other talent that it now has on the roster. All is not lost with Carr’s departure.
Let’s go back to the day that Tony Carr made his announcement to come to Penn State, August 3, 2015. With Carr added to the scholarship matrix, this is what the team looked like at the time.
|1||F - Brandon Taylor||C - Julian Moore^||C - Julian Moore^||G - Isaiah Washington^|
|2||F - Donovon Jack||F - Payton Banks^||F - Payton Banks^||F - Michael Watkins|
|3||C - Jordan Dickerson||G - Shep Garner||G - Shep Garner||F - Deividas Zemgulis|
|4||G - Devin Foster||G - Terrence Samuel^||G - Terrence Samuel^||G - Josh Reaves|
|5||G - Isaiah Washington^||G - Isaiah Washington^||G - Nazeer Bostick|
|6||C - Julian Moore^||F - Michael Watkins||F - Michael Watkins||F - Joe Hampton|
|7||F - Payton Banks^||F - Deividas Zemgulis||F - Deividas Zemgulis||G - Tony Carr|
|8||G - Shep Garner||G - Josh Reaves||G - Josh Reaves|
|9||G - Isaiah Washington^||G - Nazeer Bostick||G - Nazeer Bostick|
|10||F - Michael Watkins||F - Joe Hampton||F - Joe Hampton|
|11||F - Deividas Zemgulis||G - Tony Carr||G - Tony Carr|
|12||G - Josh Reaves|
Scanning over what the team had, 2015 was scheduled to be a relatively bleak experience for the program and its fans. 2016, even with the addition of Stevens into the mix, would lean heavily on the shoulders of three red-shirt juniors. By 2017, with the projected roster at the time that Tony Carr committed, the program would be ready to make a major step forward. While players left the program and others were added by the time 2017 came around, it was in fact a leap forward for the program. What was projected to be a team led by upperclassmen turned out to be a showcase of three sophomores.
It became popular belief that Tony Carr would lead the team into the future, guiding the further ascent into college basketball relevance for Pat Chambers and the Penn State program. Now the question is whether the momentum can be maintained, with Carr moving on to the next level. While it is a shock to some people’s system to envision the team without Carr next season, the roster, overall, is as strong as it has been dating back to the Joe Crispin-led team that made it to the Sweet 16 in 2001.
Here’s what the Lions have returning next season
Starters- Josh Reaves, Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins, Jamari Wheeler.
8-12 Minutes Per Game- Satchel Pierce, Trent Buttrick, Deivis Zemgulis, Daniil Kasatkin.
These are just projections based on what we know at the moment. Last season Julian Moore played in all but one game, seeing twelve minutes per contest. Jamari Wheeler was the only Penn State player to see time in all 39 games other than Lamar Stevens, and Wheeler averaged roughly fifteen minutes per game. At this time last year, had we known that was going to unfold, it would have been unlikely that the prognostications for the team would have matched the actual outcome; a 26-win, NIT Championship team with a player moving on to the NBA draft.
Three starters return; Reaves, Stevens and Watkins. Jamari Wheeler does not get the benefit of much hype, as was the case at this point last year, but it makes sense that if he continues to improve, he will be the starting point guard.
Three of the four players listed as potential 15-plus minute per game contributors are freshman guards. It is likely that one of the three will win a starting job at some point during the non-conference schedule. Last season the team featured the same starting five players when they were healthy. Next year seven or eight players could get more than five starts. Last year only John Harrar (8) got more than four starts other than the typical starting lineup.
Only two of the top projected eight contributors are able to play the center position; Watkins and Harrar. Lamar Stevens will play center when it is strategically beneficial within the flow of a game, but that won’t be very often. Expect Pierce, Zemgulis, and Buttrick to contribute off the bench with low-post defensive depth; each brings a separate skill set, giving Chambers strategic options to deploy. Freshman Daniil Kasatkin, at 6’7, is a very tall perimeter player that may bring a few skills to the table that could be beneficial as well.
It is easy to dismiss the unproven players on the roster as being long-shots to contribute next season. Remember the perception a year ago, at this time during the off-season, that John Harrar and Jamari Wheeler had in the eyes of most prognosticators. Some said that they would never pan out at the Division 1 level; instead they have become likely four-year contributors. Deivis Zemgulis, using his ability to distribute the ball from the high-post and his new-found low-post defense, was critical during arguably the season-defining win at Ohio State. Zemgulis shot 100% from behind the arc during his start versus the Buckeyes, 1 for 1.
I say that because at this point it is impossible to predict all of the nuances of an upcoming season. What I see is a balanced roster, though young, that will be able to compete for an NCAA tournament bid.
Any team that can put Mike Watkins, Lamar Stevens, and Josh Reaves on the floor will have a chance to win every game that it plays. The looming question is how often this will happen for Penn State. Whether it be injuries, suspensions, or other reasons, if all three of these players fail to play more than 30 games apiece, it is hard to imagine a positive outcome for the Lions.
With that said, three players are not enough to field a team. It will take support from the rest of the roster. It is understandable if some people lack the faith that is required to feel comfortable with Jamari Wheeler and three freshman guards stepping in as critical contributors. I think it will work out fine. With that in mind, I also feel that Trent Buttrick is going to produce meaningful minutes, using his outside touch and big body to fill in where the team needs him on any given day.
If we recall what the expectations were of Julian Moore at this time last year, there remains hope that Satchel Pierce will be able to fill a similar role while getting fewer minutes. No, Moore didn’t change the position of backup center as we know it, but he did provide crucial minutes, and in some cases production. Take away Moore’s contribution last season, and it is doubtful that the team would have won enough games to qualify for the NIT, much less go on to win the championship.
How do you feel, BSD reader? Are you optimistic, pessimistic, or somewhere in between? What are your expectations for the coming season?