Penn State is having a season to remember and it brings back memories of some of the best teams in Happy Valley during the Big Ten era. Conversations are happening in the community that include familiar names such as Battle, Crispin, Booth and Carr as we compare the current incarnation of the squad to those of the past.
Coming off a monumental win in East Lansing, Pat Chambers’ crew is now getting placed in the top-5 teams assembled since Penn State joined the Big Ten conference a little more than 25 years ago. Were the Lions to complete the goal of making the NCAA Tournament this season, it would be the fourth time the program has made the big dance since joining the B1G.
For the sake of comparison, we tossed in the 2017-18 team featuring Tony Carr. That group was 9-6 in conference and finished 9-9 without the help of an injured Mike Watkins. There were plenty of analysts around the country, and a few Big Ten coaches, that said that team deserved to make the tournament. It went on, without Watkins, to win the NIT Championship, anchored by fresh-faced youngster John Harrar at center.
Changes In The Game
Remember while looking at the stats that the game has changed a bit over the years. The 3-point shot line has been moved. It was 19 feet 9 inches until the 2008-09 season when it was moved out one foot. This year the line was moved back further, to 22 feet 1 3⁄4 inches. Wide open 3-point shots, back in the days of Joe Crispin and Pete Lisicky, were easier since they were closer, sure. The defender also had less area to cover to get a hand in the shooter’s face, so in some ways it made run-out coverage on shots a little more effective.
I’m old enough to have watched the college game before there was a 3-point line so its impact on the game is easy to recall. Initially it took away the value of the mid-range shot, since you got more points for moving back a couple of feet. Thirty years later, with the line moved back where it is, the mid-range game is opening up again. Fewer players can shoot an acceptable percentage now that the line is over 2 feet further back than it was a dozen years ago.
It’s a little easier to drive the lane now with the players spread out more, too. And of course, a little more difficult with the advent of the no-charge zone. The restricted area under the hoop was first implemented at 3 feet from the center of the basket in 2011. It grew to 4 feet in 2015. Soon it may take over the world. It has created a premium for players that can pull up short of the line and finish without going all the way to the hoop. It’s more finesse with fewer contested strong finishes than it was just a decade ago.
The shot clock went from 35 seconds to 30 in 2015, increasing the tempo of the game slightly. The stats aren’t completely translatable from one decade to the next, but here they are, enjoy.
Record: 21-7 (12-6 B1G)
Finish: 5th seed NCAA Tournament, lost 1st round.
Looking at the roster from the bottom up, Jarrett Stephens, one of the more underrated players in Penn State history, contributed slightly as a freshman. Stephens would go on to be a program leader in the following years, but the teams were a combined 42-44 for three years after the storied 1995-96 season, so some of his heroics are have been forgotten.
Calvin Booth is a name that comes up twenty years after his playing days in State College since he was drafted by the NBA and played several seasons. His 3.6 blocks per game and 9.3 points were great. He and Tony Carr are the only players that have been drafted since Penn State joined the Big Ten. That may change later this year with Lamar Stevens.
The balance in the scoring in the top four made it so that the team did not truly count on any player to have a solid game in order to win. Unlike the more recent teams, led by one or two key players, this team was evenly spread out. Players had their roles, so which player got the important shot was determined by the situation, or what the defense gave them.
Until very recently it seemed that those days would never return. A Penn State team that at times dominated the Big Ten conference. Later this year we may be partying like it’s 1996, but hopefully dancing well into the third round like the next team.
Record: 21-12 (7-9 B1G)
Finish: 7th seed NCAA Tournament, lost regional semi-final
As you can see, three players led the way in the scoring department. Jon Crispin and Tyler Smith were reliable supporting players. Notice the distribution of the ball, though, in the assist numbers. Only Marcus Banta, the least-used player in the rotation, had the body and skill-set of a forward. The rest of the team, including 6-foot-9 Tyler Smith, was able to handle the ball. It created the ability to get the ball to the three scorers, and though teams knew it was coming, they had a hard time chasing the ball as the Lions passed it to the open shooter.
Everything was going just fine for this team until a 1-point loss against Northwestern seemed to derail them for the finish of the regular-season. A 19-point loss at home against Michigan State the next game left the Lions just 6-8 in conference play with a road game against Iowa looming. Penn State beat the Hawkeyes and though the team lost 3 of the final 4 games, two wins in the Big Ten tournament were enough to get an NCAA Tournament invitation.
Joe Crispin and the rest of the gang made the most of it, beating Providence and then North Carolina to make it to the Sweet 16, the deepest run for the program since the 1950’s. They eventually lost to Temple, something that they have in common with the next group.
Record: 19-15 (9-9 B1G)
Finish: 10th seed NCAA Tournament, Lost 2nd Round
Most Penn State fans have been watching long enough to remember this team. Tim Frazier, possibly the best player of the bunch, had yet to develop into a scoring threat. He struggled to get his 6.3 points per night, but the next year he averaged 18.8. Frazier was a true point guard during this season, distributing the rock and doing the little things.
Talor Battle was clearly the heart and soul of the team, though Jeff Brooks had a great season. David Jackson was the last true small forward that the Lions have had until the arrival of Seth Lundy. Jackson’s game was versatile and he was the best free throw shooter on the team.
Andrew Jones was the only true center-type in the rotation so the team rebounded by committee. Frazier and Battle chipped in a combined 8.3 boards per game, which helped on that end. Protecting the rim was a problem and while Jeff Brooks blocked 1.4 shots per game, his work was done mostly by coming off his responsibility to help others.
Battle’s younger brother Taran Buie was a talented young player that never found his way in State College. Their younger brother Boo Buie will face the current Lion team twice in the coming weeks as a member of the Northwestern Wildcats.
This group could have gone deeper in the tournament had things worked out differently. A buzzer beater at the hands of the Temple Owls is the last memory of the NCAA Tournament for Penn State fans.
Record: 26-13 (9-9 B1G)
Finish: NIT Champion
This team may have just been one win away from getting an NCAA Tournament bid. In retrospect, it probably should have made the field. But until very recently, maybe a just the last few weeks, it seemed that Penn State basketball couldn’t catch a break. So we were conditioned to expect the worst and we got it.
As far as the rest of the year, it was great. There was the spectacular win at Ohio State on a buzzer shot by Tony Carr and then another in State College by 23 points over the Buckeyes. A stretch without Josh Reaves may have doomed the team, as it went just 2-4 in the Big Ten while he was academically ineligible. They won 6 of the next 7 once Reaves returned.
The team had five scoring contributors, all able to reach double digits. While Carr took most of the late, tough shots, Lamar Stevens, Shep Garner and Reaves scored throughout the year in critical moments. There were four very limited role players outside of the starting five, so the drop-off when Pat Chambers went to the bench was severe.
That may be the biggest difference between the 2017-18 team and the current squad. Some of the names are the same, and they have aged and gotten better. The overall depth compared to two seasons ago is much greater now.
Record: 17-5 (7-4 B1G)
Depth is a key component to the current roster. While it appears, on paper, that two players do most of the scoring, the results vary from game to game. Watkins, Brockington, Dread and Curtis Jones have all scored over 15 points multiple times this year. While the four do not average ten per game, they contribute heavily if not consistently.
The rotation is as deep as it has been since the 1995-96 team. Lamar Stevens is the clear leader of the team and tops the scoring, but sophomore Myreon Jones has become a very reliable scorer as well. Dread and Brockington have had up and down seasons, but as underclassmen that is not a big surprise.
Curtis Jones has helped the team win a few games. When looking at the stats it is likely that years from now people may not remember the impact that the transfer has had on this team. You could say the same about Wheeler and Harrar, who on paper, appear to be liabilities. In reality, they are very limited players that contribute specific skills, some that don’t show up in the stat sheet.
The story isn’t completely written on this group just yet. While the numbers may not change much, the results that we will remember years from now have yet to unfold. Clutch wins against Maryland, Yale, Alabama, Iowa and Michigan State have got this team in the position it now enjoys. A decade from now it will be the final games that will stick in our memory.