If you look at some of the non-conference schedules of past Penn State Basketball teams, it seems like the goal is for the team to lose as few games as possible before the rugged Big Ten slate begins. There hasn’t recently been a lot of consideration for challenging opponents that could boost Penn State’s NCAA Tournament resume.
With five losses already, the Lions aren’t likely contenders for the big dance, but you also can’t say that they’re not challenging themselves in the early going. Head coach Pat Chambers knew his young pupils weren’t going to cruise through November and December with nary a defeat, but he’s confident that the stiff tests will pay off in the long run.
“We’re 6-5, not where we want to be, but the growth of this team; we’re slowly but surely getting there,” Chambers said in a conference call earlier this week, “This non-conference has really challenged us, and that’s what we wanted. We wanted challenges early and often to prepare us for Northwestern and the Big Ten slate starting on December 27.”
Penn State is still a far cry from being a contender in the Big Ten, but the team’s youngest players have shown why they were so highly thought of as recruits. Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins could very well be all-conference players in the future, but for now they’re just trying to put a solid 40 minutes of basketball together.
“For us, we’re in exam week, so we’ve got to focus on Penn State and what Penn State can get better at,” said Chambers, “We’ve played some really good 20-minute halves. We just haven’t put a 40-minute game together, and like somebody said the other day, when we do play 30, we find success.”
The freshmen’s greatness doesn’t flash as often as fans would like, but when it does, the results are brilliant. Stevens gets to the foul line consistently and hits more than 90 percent of his free throws. Allen has proven to be a great rebounder for a point guard and finds ways to help the team even when his shot isn’t falling. Watkins is already one of the nation’s premier shot blockers with 3.4 rejections per game. Together, the trio led Penn State to consecutive wins over KenPom’s No. 119 George Washington and No. 118 Georgia Tech.
The pieces are in place for Penn State to eventually make noise in the Big Ten, but we’ll probably have to wait at least one more year for that to happen. Thanks to the challenging non-conference schedule, Chambers’s top recruits are getting more experience early in their careers than the typical Nittany Lion freshmen. Add in the trio’s obvious talent, and you’ve got a team that should only grow stronger as the calendar turns to January.