Tonight Penn State opens the season against Maryland Eastern Shore in a game they really have no business losing. Last year the uncertain status of Mike Watkins and the loss of the greatest 3-point shooter in program history, Shep Garner, raised some concerns about the early-going and where the offense would come from. This year the team is at full-strength, and features two seniors and a junior in the starting lineup. Losing Josh Reaves will hurt, but this team is capable of handling the Shore Hawks, and I expect they’ll be prepared to do so.
Eastern Shore finished 7-25 for the second season in a row last year, and their struggles are reflected by KenPom’s estimation of their capabilities heading into the new season. They feature a new head coach in Jason Crafton, who spent last year coaching the 76ers G-league affiliate, the Delaware Blue Coats. Along with their new coach are 8 JuCo transfers and incoming freshmen. The two programs have met twice before, in 1993 and 1994, with Penn State winning both handily.
Scouting the opposition
The Hawks return several upperclassmen, including leading scorer AJ Cheeseman, assists and steals leader Bryan Urrutia, and senior forward Gabriel Gyamfi. Cheeseman averaged 8.8 points per game last season for the Hawks, but will have a challenging match-up against Watkins and John Harrar inside for Penn State. Urrutia is the most likely candidate to give fans a headache during the game. He lead the MEAC in assists, steals and minutes last year; and could be a thorn in the side of the Nittany Lions if he can disrupt play and breakdown the defense.
Gyamfi draws the difficult matchup against Lamar Stevens. His best attributes are rebounding and a high FG percentage in the paint, which earned him the honor of being named the team’s most improved player last year. Transfer Ty Gibson comes from Gulf Coast College where he shot 35% from 3-point range, and is likely to see a featured role in his first game for Eastern Shore. If he gets hot early, look for Izaiah Brockington to come off the bench to shut him down.
What to watch for
Bench Rotation in the Early Minutes - I’m curious to see who gets usage before the first media timeout. John Harrar and Izaiah Brockington are who I’d expect to see first off the bench, and it will be interesting to see how quickly Chambers gets Seth Lundy his first taste of collegiate basketball. It’s easy to see this game getting out of hand at some point for the Hawks, and by then it will be difficult to take too much away from Chambers’ lineup decisions.
Offensive Production - Based on last year’s performances, if Myles Dread isn’t shooting 3s successfully the offense will have to run through Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. That has lead to stagnation in the past, and given Dread’s tendency to be a streaky shooter, others will need to step up.
Lamar Stevens - He’s already one of the best players Penn State basketball has had, and he’s back for his senior season. Through the highs and lows, the easy wins and the tough losses, don’t get distracted from Stevens’ outstanding play and leadership on the court. He can dominate the game in ways no other Nittany Lion has, and it’s worth tuning in just to watch.
This is the most experienced team Pat Chambers has had while at Penn State. That should help them stay focused and take care of business tonight. I won’t be surprised if the Nittany Lions start out a little sluggish shooting the ball from 3, but that shouldn’t keep them from building a lead utilizing Stevens and Watkins inside. Eventually the shots will fall, and Penn State will cruise to victory. Penn State 83, Maryland Eastern Shore 60