Penn State Basketball has ascended to highs not seen in decades, reaching No. 9 in the AP poll and second place in the Big Ten, with six games still left in conference play. The Nittany Lions could still win the conference if the won the rest of their games and Maryland lost once along the way. Here are some thoughts from the staff on the week that was.
Q: The Nittany Lions tied their highest ranking ever. If you had to pick only one reason for the resurgence, what is it?
Clay: Depth. This is, by far, the deepest Nittany Lions team I’ve ever seen. When Lamar has been off, Myreon Jones has steeped up. With Jones out, Myles Dread and Curtis Jones have stepped up. We’ve seen big games from Izaiah Brockington and Mike Watkins. That depth has been huge.
Rowen: Experienced depth players. This is the deepest and most experienced team under Pat Chambers, and it shows. There are reliable players who understand the system and can compete with anyone in the Big Ten at all starting positions, and 4 players (when the team is healthy) who can come off the bench without disrupting the game flow. The talent and depth take pressure off the team and coaching staff since Penn State doesn’t need their stars to play flawlessly in order to knock off the best of the Big Ten. The 2011 tournament team had similar levels of experience, but not quite the depth to match what this team can do off the bench.
Marty: Senior leadership. There have been multiple games this season that Penn State pulled out from the fire that in past years they would have lost. Hell, in past years that three game losing streak in January would have nuked the season but these Nittany Lions are different. I put a lot of that at the feet of the leadership of Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins.
Lando: It has to be the play of the bench and getting multiple reliable scorers. I can’t recall the last time (maybe 2009-11?) when Penn State had four guys capable of scoring 20 every night. It also doesn’t hurt that the Nittany Lions also have several excellent three-point shooters.
Eli: Individual improvement by the entire roster. This is basically the same team they had last season, with the addition of two key pieces in Izaiah Brockington’s eligibility and Curtis Jones transferring. Those two replaced Josh Reaves and Rasir Bolton, respectively, in terms of bodies. The difference comes in how much better the players that returned are playing now as opposed to last season. Everyone, and I mean everyone, is playing better than they did last year.
Q: Illinois comes in this week reeling a bit, having lost four straight. They may also be without Ayo Dosunmu. Is Illinois as concerning today as they were two weeks ago?
Clay: I still think the Illini are a pretty good team, but I’m not sure I buy into the program culture being strong enough to bounce back, especially if Donsunmu is out.
Rowen: Without Dosunmu the Illini aren’t quite as big of a threat, and it appears that the conference slate has started to wear down freshman phenom Kofi Cockburn as well. On the other hand this game is now critical for Illinois to win, and I expect them to give Penn State a challenge.
Marty: Not at all. You could make an argument that Illinois will be more desperate than they would have been two weeks ago, this also appears to be a team that is a bit on the defeated side. Plus, the potential lack of Dosunmu would be a major one.
Lando: Short answer, no. Illinois has lost four in a row, which naturally makes Pessimist Lando wary, but without their top scorer, I don’t think they have enough firepower to take down Penn State on the road.
Eli: I’d love to think Penn State will make quick work of Illinois on Tuesday, but I’m smart enough to know that if Northwestern can make it a game late, Illinois can make it a game early, even without their best player.
Q: Who’s your player of the week?
Clay: Jamari Wheeler. His box scores aren’t the flashiest, but Wheeler’s defense has continued to be elite lately and his shooting has shown up recently as well.
Rowen: Myles Dread. Finally out of his shooting slump the sophomore deserves recognition for his scoring uptick while he continues to do the little things at both ends of the court.
Marty: I’ll say Myles Dread. He scored 28 points this week and played his usual great defense. Most importantly, he went went 8/16 form the three point line. For much of the year Dread has struggled from behind the arc, but he appears to be overcoming that when it matters most.
Lando: Since I didn’t pick Lamar last week, he gets my vote this week. He may have played only sparingly against Purdue, but Stevens had 23 and seven boards against the Wildcats. Honorable mention goes to Myles Dread, who seems to have found his (consistent) shot.
Eli: Jamari Wheeler makes it impossible for opposing guards to be comfortable, and now Big Ten teams have to contend with the choice of leaving him open at the three point line and paying for it dearly.
Q: Penn State is on Maryland’s trail for the conference crown, and two full games (and a half) ahead of third place. How do you see this playing out?
Clay: Penn State has the easier of the two schedules, but it has to take it one game at a time. I lean toward the Terps staying out ahead, but who knows?
Rowen: After their win at MSU I think the most likely result is Maryland winning the regular season crown by 1 game. I’m not confident that Penn State will win out, and Maryland dropping two seems unlikely. Stranger things have happened, but a 2nd place finish doesn’t sound too bad either.
Marty: Penn State has the easier remaining schedule AND the tie breaker over the Terps. I can not believe I am about to type this....but I foresee the Nittany Lions finishing as the Big Ten regular season champions. (Quickly looks out the window for flying pigs)
Lando: The Nittany Lions’ road game against Iowa worries me a bit, but Maryland has three road games remaining, and home games against Michigan and Michigan State. I think I see at least two losses there, while Penn State may only lose once. That result would end the season in a tie, and Penn State owns the tiebreaker.
Eli: Conventional wisdom would dictate that Penn State will lose at least once before the Big Ten tournament, but I don’t have to follow conventional wisdom. The Nittany Lions win out, Maryland loses both their road games, Penn State wins the Big Ten outright.
Q: What are you looking for this week?
Clay: MOAR WINZ
Rowen: The return of Myreon Jones would be encouraging. Aside from that, a couple of wins and a loss by Maryland would be ideal.
Marty: Illinois and Indiana will both be tough outs. Both teams are talented and are in need of the all the wins they can get to earn a NCAA Tournament berth. This could create a tough week, especially with a trip to Bloomington over the weekend. It will not come easy, but the Nittany Lions go 2-0 this week. Hopefully, it will include the return of Myreon Jones.
Lando: Another solid win against a team that the Nittany Lions should beat, especially at home.
Eli: Well I already predicted they’ll win out so I guess I need them to win the next two games don’t I?
Penn State faces Illinois on Tuesday and visits Indiana on Saturday. Games are available on FS1 and BTN, respectively.