Penn State had a great start to the season on Tuesday. Six players scored more than 10 points. Mike Watkins looked sharp, dominating at both ends without fouling on his way to a double-double in less than 20 minutes of play. Myreon Jones proved capable of taking on part-time duties at point guard, and several new players were worked into the game for substantial minutes. Now they’ll face Wagner, with another chance to fine-tune the fundamentals and find a rhythm before heading on the road to face Georgetown next week.
Is it possible to have a must-win game this early in the season? Wagner is a team that Penn State has no business losing to this year, and a loss to them would put a stain on the Nittany Lions tournament resume that would stick with them into March. At this point it’s difficult to say which late-February games will be must-wins, but it’s clear that Penn State must avoid losses to teams ranked 300+ on KenPom.
Scouting the opposition
Wagner opened their season with a 105-70 loss at #12 Seton Hall. They kept it close early, and were within 7 points with under 3-minutes to play in the first-half, but ultimately couldn’t keep pace with Seton Hall’s offense. Much of the reason Wagner kept it close against Seton Hall in the first half was the result of Tyrone Nesby’s three-point shooting off the bench. He hit 4 threes in the first half when Morales was struggling to score.
The Seahawks had a total of four players reach double figures in scoring, three of those players making their debut in a Wagner uniform. The new members were led by Alex Morales who hit 7 of 10 free throws in a 17 point night. Morales is a talented JuCo transfer that will do a little bit of everything, and showed how central he can be to the team by leading in points and assists, while finishing second in rebounds. Patrick Szpir, a transfer from Chicago State, finished with 12 points and 11 rebounds in his debut.
What to watch for
Ball Security - The team had 15 turnovers against MES, and that’s a slight cause for concern given the competition. The blame can be spread around to several, with 6 players committing 2 turnovers. In their second game, I’m looking to see a bit more control from the team, and a better understanding of where each other will be to reduce unforced errors.
Forcing the Stretch-Four? - While Myles Dread started out hot from the perimeter, Trent Buttrick and John Harrar did not. Buttrick went 0-4 and Harrar missed his only attempt by quite a bit. It’s something that Chambers encourages, and while I trust that Buttrick will sink a few, Harrar is a uncertainty and I think he’s better served facilitating or scoring inside. We’ll see if Chambers continues to give John the green-light from outside.
Free-Throw Shooting - A major weakness last year, and not off to a great starting shooting 58% from the line in the opener. It was good to see Watkins hit 2 of 3, but the team needs to be better.
A slow start for Penn State is Wagner’s best chance. They proved against Seton Hall that they can score against top-tier talent in a variety of ways, and there are scenarios where cold-shooting by the home team in a quiet arena leads to a competitive first-half of play. But the Nittany Lions have too many weapons for Wagner to hold on and stay close for the whole game. Penn State 86, Wagner 62