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Penn State Basketball Preseason Roundtable

The staff comes together to say, well, something, about the upcoming season.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan State at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The college basketball season is finally upon us! The staff comes back together to answer a few questions regarding the upcoming season, including the annual season predictions! Without much ado, let’s get started!

Question: First, the elephant in the room. What are your thoughts on the past month or so for Penn State, and the past couple of months for college sports as a whole? How bad of an idea is it to be playing basketball right now?

Ross: With how 2020 as a year was progressing it seemed appropriate that this would be the year that Penn State avoids losing the offseason. Albeit the transition into the 2019 was pretty smooth. Alas, we can’t have nice things even in a year when the inside of the BJC seems like a better space to be in that outside of it. The loss of Pat Chambers leading into the year hurts, and makes the future of the program as uncertain as ever. In the time since the announcement of the coaching change it has been encouraging to see the current roster stick together, and I’m thankful for that. Is it a bad idea to be playing basketball right now? As a fan of this team this isn’t the first time I’ve asked the question, and as always it’s out of my hands. The success of the NBA is encouraging, but I don’t think we should expect or request the same level of isolation for college athletes (or really anyone).

Clay: Besides the fact that it’s insane that we’re even doing this amidst an ever-ranging pandemic, it’s the worst kept secret in the world that I wasn’t a fan of Pat Chambers as a basketball coach and yet even I can’t shake the feeling that he’s been railroaded. Penn State released no specifics regarding the firing to the public or to players, and meanwhile players are staunchly defending him left and right amidst insinuations that he was some horrible person or virulent racist. Seems odd! The only way I’ve been able to read this situation is that Sandy and PSU used this stuff as an excuse to fire a bad coach after his best season yet without paying a buyout. It looks cowardly and it looks gutless and the program is doomed to the gutters forever.

Lando: This has been a nightmare of a fall for Penn State so far (almost entirely to do with football, but basketball has contributed as well), and the idea of playing competitive sports indoors during a pandemic sounds like not the best plan. It probably isn’t a good move to play, and the chances of finishing a full season are as slim as Manute Bol’s physique. You’ll notice that I haven’t even addressed the dumpster fire that is the coaching situation. Judging by the comments of the current and former players (as well as their lost recruits), it is clear a mistake was made in letting Pat Chambers go.

With that said, however, if the basketball team executes even a tiny better than the football team, I will gladly watch them play this season. If the players want to play, I will support them. They are the ones I care about, anyway

Tim: For Penn State purposes, I’m keeping my thoughts strictly to hoops. Sandy Barbour took a bulldozer to the sandcastle that Pat Chambers painstakingly built over the past nine years. The fact that the players are in the dark and are breaking out the pitchfork and torches over the AD is a truly bad sign. Even worse is the fact that Sandy had no replacement in mind before making the decision to force a sitting coach out only a month before the season was to begin. Good luck landing anyone other than some lower major D1 coach who will end up being a gamble that likely fails.

College sports in general as you can see with football, and been one giant clusterfuck. At least with the NFL, NBA, and other pro sports leagues, you have one centralized uniform set of COVID protocols taking effect, and the players aren’t also students living on campus or interacting with the student body and attending parties. With college, it seems like every conference has their own set of protocols and you have your share of coaches who don’t seem to abide by them all that well, which has caused all sorts of problems. College hoops could very well end up in the same boat unless conferences commit to using a bubble format similar to what the NBA did.

Marty: Playing basketball probably is not super smart. Putting people in close contact with each other indoors during a global pandemic, is, well, not smart! Anyway, the Chambers situation has been a disaster for Penn State. Now, don’t get me wrong, I was far from Pat’s biggest defendant, but in no world did the team’s performance last season garner a firing. If Sandy Barbour was going to fire him, it needed to come back in the spring. To me it feels like she used the Rasir Bolton incident as a cop out to get rid of him. Pat, in my opinion, was hosed.

Eli: Man, money. If it weren’t for the green (and different colors in other countries!), I’d have to assume we wouldn’t be engaging in this futile attempt to hold a season together with duct tape and bubble gum. But, you know, people need their (b|m)illions! Let’s just hope that long term effects of this virus don’t cripple anyone’s lives moving forward.

As per Chambers, well, I was a believer of “if it went down the way it did, there must have been a justifiable reason for doing so.” Then, last week, the players, almost unanimously, expressed their discontent with the athletic department, and let the world know that they, too, are as in the dark about what actually happened as the rest of us are. I don’t much care if I never find out what happened, but the department should, at the very least, explain it to the players. They are, after all the reason that department pays its bills. One doesn’t need to get into privacy-violating details to paint a good picture.

Why is it that this department, when given all possible choices to solve a problem, continually picks the worst one?

Q: Penn State, in a rare season, has many known commodities on its roster, returning six players who saw significant time last year. Who intrigues you coming into this season?

Ross: Last year from Myreon Jones was a revelation, and I’m eager to see if he can step into his new role this year with the same success. He showed poise in stepping up during key moments of games and providing a spark when Lamar was struggling or out of the game, but can he handle being the go-to player when opponents are game-planning for him instead? If Myreon isn’t able to carry the burden of the star player, who will?

Clay: Izaiah Brockington is the guy for me. We saw glimpses of his ability last year and I expect that with more time in the program, he’s only going to continue to improve. He’s a long, rangy guy with great bounce and good defensive instincts. If his shooting continues to come along, he could be a ton of fun.

Lando: I’m eager to see if Seth Lundy can take that next step and become one of the stars of this team. Goodness knows that the Nittany Lions will need him to be that kind of player.

Tim: I’m curious to see if Seth Lundy takes the next step and really becomes a go-to guy, sort of filling the role at small/power forward that Lamar Stevens previously did. He was really starting to get comfortable towards the end of last season with the rough and tumble of Big Ten basketball and if PSU is going to surprise everybody this year, it’s going to be dependent on guys like Seth having a breakthrough.

Marty: Seth Lundy. I truly believe Lundy is a budding superstar. He flashed at times last year, it’s time to see what he can do in year two.

Eli: I want to see how much better Jamari Wheeler will shoot the ball this season. If Wheeler can become as effective on offense as he is on defense, opposing teams are going to have a real good time trying to stop him.

Q: Assuming you shared your thoughts on the coaching situation in the first question, is there a silver lining in the likely change in approach to the team this season, having a guard-heavy lineup?

Ross: I had felt that this roster was the best-equipped to play Chambers’ preferred style of basketball with Patrick Kelly and Seth Lundy potentially growing into the stretch-four role that the likes of Brandon Taylor and Donovan Jack, at times, tried to fill. So, I don’t think it helps to lose him this year. On the other hand, having a senior PG in Wheeler who had originally committed to play for your interim coach is a significant blessing.

Clay: Maybe we finally see an offense that runs functional sets?

Lando: I suppose so? It’s hard to say until we see them in action, but guard-heavy lineups have been a staple of Penn State’s in the past.

Tim: The only silver lining I can think of is that this guard-heavy roster is perfect for Jim Ferry’s preferred up-tempo, pressing style of play that he used while he was the head coach at Duquesne.

Marty: This could be the case. I definitely believe this is something Pat would have been thrilled to have. If Jim Ferry sticks to a lot of those same principles, that could bode well for the Nittany Lions.

Eli: I’d love to see what this offense can do with what they bring back. They were admittedly quite uptempo last season, but this season they could stand to be blazing fast on the floor. And yes, of course, the lack of depth behind John Harrar is concerning, but that’s only relevant if the guards miss shots. So don’t miss shots!

Q: The Big Ten released their conference schedule sometimes last week. What are your thoughts on Penn State’s draw?

Ross: This felt like a mine-field regardless of how it shaked out. Right now KenPom has 10 Big Ten teams ranked in the top 30, with Maryland, Penn State, Northwestern and Nebraska (in that order) ranging from 51 to 117. Penn State gets 5 out of 6 possible regular season matchups against these teams projected in the bottom part of the standings, which is hard to complain about. Of the top 4 projected teams, Penn State will play Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Iowa each just one time. So overall, I think the schedule worked out about as good as you could hope, although it does appear to be more difficult in the first half of the year which could make for a tough start to conference play.

Clay: The schedule lightens up a tad in the middle, but Penn State has a brutal stretch out of the gates. If the Nittany Lions can’t pop Illinois in B1G game No. 2, things could get ugly.

Lando: Not great, Bob, not great. MSU only on the road, starting in Ann Arbor, and a five-game stretch in the end of January to beginning of February where the Nittany Lion travel to an improved Nebraska and Wisconsin, before going home to face Maryland, and finishing at MSU and home against the same Huskers. Yikes.

Tim: We will find out rather quickly just how this PSU team stacks up against the B1G given that six of the first seven contests are against ranked opponents (including a home-and-home with Michigan). If they can somehow take three or four of those games, then strap in, because things are really going to get interesting from there. It’s also nice to see they only have to face Iowa and Michigan State just once and get a home-and-home with Nebraska, who is once again expected to bring up the rear in the conference (not for long though, as Fred Hoiberg will have them humming as soon as the 2021-22 season).

Marty: To be honest, I’m not sure it matters. Without any sort of fans and a real home court advantage this season, a lot of those things go out the window.

Eli: As a fan of Penn State basketball, every schedule I look at is a tough schedule. Are they playing 25 division 2 opponents? No? Then it’s a tough draw.

That said, the team proved last season that they don’t give a **** how tough the draw is. And most of those players came back. Can they do it again this season, maybe, hopefully, for their former coach? We’ll see.

Q: On that same note, what are your thoughts on the five-game non-conference slate?

Ross: I think it’s the right balance. Drexel is good enough to give the team a scare on opening night, and I’m hoping that being from Philadelphia will help the team rise up and avoid a letdown due to lack of emotion. VMI should give a chance to fix hiccups identified in the opener, and then we have three straight games in which I’ll be happy with a win and not too dissatisfied with a loss.

Clay: Honestly, VCU and Seton Hall are two of the best non-con opponents they’ve had in years. Kind of funny that this is the season those games would come together.

Lando: Penn State’s non-con has a Virginia flavor, with Drexel and Seton Hall thrown in there. Normally, I would expect 4-1 in the non-conference, but 3-2 or 2-3 is probably more likely this season.

Tim: Drexel and VMI are games they should win but also won’t drag down the resume too much. The three-game gauntlet against VCU, Seton Hall, and Virginia Tech will be telling. Ideally, you’d like to see the Lions go no worse than 3-2 during this stretch, with 4-1 being preferable.

Marty: Penn State could og 5-0, 0-5, or anywhere in between without surprising me. They have the talent to win those games, just not sure where this team is mentally and effort wise after everything that has happened.

Eli: Five games is not that much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s better than the zero the football team got before they played the games that mattered. Given how the gauntlet is thrown right away on the conference side of things, seeing a combination of tough and manageable opponents in this slate is actually a breath of fresh air. 2-3 is probably the floor, but I wouldn’t be surprised with anything at this point. And, while I think the players are angry with how things have transpired, I have a sinking sensation that we’re going to see the opposite of what everyone expects early.

Q: Florida has already canceled two of its games before the season is even started. How many cancellations do you foresee for the Nittany Lions? Can we look to football to predict which Big Ten teams will miss half their seasons?

Ross: If you play a game of basketball in the BJC and no one is there to see it, can it be canceled?

Clay: Greater than 10? I would be shocked if the season finishes for anybody.

Lando: It’s hard for me to predict the amount of cancellations at this point. I think two is probably assured, but I don’t really want to predict beyond that. The reduced amount of athletes and staff around programs in basketball compared to football may result in less cancellations, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Tim: I really have no clue how this will pan out, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some of the same problems plaguing their football counterparts also do the same to hoops. That being said, basketball rosters are much smaller and thus easier to control, so hopefully PSU doesn’t find too many of their games cancelled.

Marty: Taking a shot in the dark I’ll say they get 3 games canceled. It’s unreasonable to believe they won’t have any games canceled.

Eli: Even on the football side, Maryland and Wisconsin have really been the only two teams who can’t quite get a handle on things, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the same applied to football, in terms of the Big Ten being ahead of other conferences in managing the pandemic. That said, 25 games is a lot of games and playing indoors is still playing indoors, even if the rosters are exponentially smaller. I’ll set the total at 4 games.

Q: Does playing in empty arenas help Penn State at all? Why or why not?

Ross: I will succumb to making the joke that it does every now and then, but I don’t actually think it will have an impact, or at least not one that can be separated out from all of the other factors. Looking back if we see strong home teams like Wisconsin and Minnesota take a step back while Penn State does fine, then maybe there’s an argument to be made. It’s not like the players speak out after a record BJC crowd requesting for fewer fans the next time around.

Clay: Sure, no different than most home games the past couple decades.

Lando: Perhaps it assists them on the road, however, Penn State occasionally plays better on the road than at home, so it’s really hard to say. A few years ago, the Nittany Lions were playing in front of empty arenas at home, so...

Tim: Absolutely. All those seasons (before last year) of playing in a near-empty BJC has them prepared for a moment like this. Time to grab the bull by the horns and ride it!

Marty: Penn State is one team it probably helps. Let’s be honest, most games the BJC is not exactly filled. So, playing in front of an empty arena for home games is nothing new. However, eliminating road crowds could help.

Eli: It’ll help. Whether that means X amount of extra wins or simply making communication better, we’ll have to see. But you’re not going to tell me that teams, and players, who are used to great crowds pumping them up suddenly having to find their own energy won’t have an effect against a team that’s well versed in needing to find their own energy because no one’s ever there.

Q: And, of course, what are your predictions for this likely-to-be crazy season?

Ross: I foresee rather middling season that sees Penn State mentioned in bubble discussions a few times before they fall off the radar. Between the craziness of the outside world and the transitions within the program, moving on from a couple of irreplaceable players, there will be enough positive performances from the likes of Myreon Jones, Myles Dread, and Seth Lundy to see 2021-2022 optimistically. However, the Big Ten is a loaded conference and the team is dealing with the same world as us, so there will be turnovers, missed shots, and losing streaks before it’s all said and done. In a mad world, only the bad programs stay the same.

Clay: 7-18. It’s just not the prettiest situation to be walking into. But hey, maybe they start 5-5 and the season gets binned!

Lando: I think this will be a rough year for Penn State. No postseason (no matter the pandemic situation), and a minimum of 15 losses.

Tim: I was tempted to say that the team was going to mail it in given the shock of losing their coach so abruptly. However, judging from media day comments from the players, they seem like a team determined to fight for themselves and send a message to Sandy that she effed up quite badly. Not gonna give a record prediction, but don’t be surprised if they’re highly competitive and land themselves an NIT bid with perhaps some NCAA bubble talk.

Of course, they could also lose to Drexel or VMI and then quit like the football team did after two games and I’ll look like a complete idiot for typing everything in that previous paragraph, so we shall see...

Marty: It could be better than this, and, hell, might be worse! But I’ll say 8-15. Ultimately, I think everything that has unfolded in the past month leads to a team that is not completely bought in and plays a lot of unfocused games. Which is a shame.

Eli: Three things:

One, the universe owes us after the debacle that has been football to date (please universe don’t be mad).

Two, these players appear to be on a mission.

Three: Penn State’s performance as a team, gradually, has improved based on the inverse relationship with a single focal point. As we’re all well aware, the last player to play such a role is now gone, yet everyone else who made that team what it is, sans two key contributors and the aforementioned superstar, is back. Year after year, all opponents had to do what shut down “the” guy and the rest of the team would fall apart. Who are they going to shut down this season? Jones? Dread? Lundy? Wheeler? Who? Yeah that’s right, go after a single player at your own risk, and open yourself up to someone else torching you for 30 points out of the blue.

This is the kind of team the previous coach worked so hard to build. There isn’t a single superstar on the team —go look at all the “top X players coming into this season” articles, you’ll find no Penn State player on such lists. Yet, every single player poised to see the floor this season is good enough! There isn’t a single guy on the 8-deep that you can say “yeah, that’s dead weight.”

I don’t know what that means for this season in particular, but I know for a fact that they’re not going to let Chambers’s hard work go to waste.

15-10, 11-9 Big Ten. Assuming no games get canceled, of course.