The non-conference slate wasn’t always pretty for our lovable basketball Lions, but they ended up 8-5 after back-to-back blowouts of St. John’s and Morgan State. Things are looking up with the young core of Lamar Stevens, Tony Carr, and especially Mike Watkins playing well while logging heavy minutes. Has the trio of freshmen made the Basketbros more bullish on the conference season that tips off on December 27 against Northwestern? We held another roundtable to find out.
You can read everyone’s predictions from before the start of the season here.
My original prediction for a 9-4 non-conference start was off by one game but it isn't that surprising. This is a young team and as a result, there will be games that it simply doesn't do enough to compete for a win. With this young, talented team, the games which they may put it all together for the win may turn out to be as surprising as the games in which the group tanks for the night. Of the five non-conference losses, I would say that the only somewhat surprising loss was the first game of the season to Albany at home. Other than that, the remainder of the games the team lost were not upsets for the most part, so the team is nearly on par for the course once their handicap for being young and playing a few games without Josh Reaves and Payton Banks is applied.
The preseason prediction for an 8-10 conference record still appears to be in play for the team, but there is a lot of work to be done. The overall skill level on the court has improved over the past two months, noticeably. When the team is playing well, we see glimpses of what may be normal behavior in the future; the ability to score more than 80 points with ease, a tempo that is enjoyable to watch, and an array of interesting players that each have a unique talent. It will be interesting to see how the team continues to improve in the second half. There will be games that the team plays poorly but their attitude on those nights will ultimately be the most important takeaway. The team is getting to the point where it could reach its upside and put together a few wins, which could be everything this young team needs. The confidence it would gain could embolden players like Mike Watkins and company coming down the final stretch of the conference schedule. I have a feeling that the team will be in contention for postseason play — most likely the NIT — in the final week of the conference season. While it may be tough to watch on a few nights, I think this team is poised to entertain its fans with a surprising conference performance.
While I made a positive spin on it (as I always do) many of the issues I brought up before the season happened. You can see where some of it is true: The talent has shown, but the lack of experience has bitten them in the butt. The depth has shown, as Penn State has had several games where five or more guys have scored in double digits, but the lack of depth at the five spot has made it such that Watkins has to bring his “A” game to every contest. They have competed, losing by 10 to Duke, and making a run late to make it interesting, but they have also been run out of their own building twice by teams who (at least as it stands today) had no business beating Penn State.
I, like everyone else most likely, expected Penn State to only lose to the teams we knew were better than the Nittany Lions. I knew it would take a while for us to see how good this team could be, but I didn't expect the growing pains to include losses to Albany and George Mason. And, while Mason may end up being a decent opponent once everything is said and done, Albany still fits that bill of "inexplicable loss to a terribly inferior opponent," a la Maine in 2011. Thus, it makes sense that they fell two games short of my preseason expectations for the non-conference portion of the season.
I expected eight wins in the Big Ten this season, and if the team wants to match my overall 18-win preseason expectation, they'll have to win 10. I could probably convince myself to a path that leads to 10 wins (like, if they start 3-1 with a win against Michigan State, for example), but I'll stick with eight wins for the time being. Rutgers is this season's 2014 Penn State/2015 Northwestern, so they're due for a free fall soon. Minnesota and Illinois are much improved from last season, but not so much that a home win is out of the question. Chambers's teams have at least one inexplicable upset in them every season. The team doesn't have to have a miracle to get to at least six wins, and anything beyond what we saw in the past two games can easily put them at eight. That would put them at 16-15, which would still fall short of my preseason prediction, but at least make it four straight seasons with 16 wins or more. And who knows, maybe they have a(nother) Big Ten Tournament run in them.
There have been growing pains for a team featuring three freshmen in the starting lineup, as you would expect. Inconsistent play and mental errors prevented the Nittany Lions from grabbing a marquee win against either Duke, Cincinnati, or Pittsburgh. The real disappointment came in the form of home losses to Albany and George Mason — with the latter being a blowout. The team did finish strong, putting up arguably their two best performances in the final two games on the non-conference slate. Convincing wins, with the offense scoring 90-plus, made things feel a little bit better going into the B1G schedule.
Despite their 8-5 record falling two short of my 10-3 prediction, I'm not backing down from my 9-9 Big Ten record prediction that I made in November. Yes, Penn State has stumbled in games they were expected to win, but there were glimpses of what is to come with Mike Watkins, Lamar Stevens, and Tony Carr holding their own for the most part. Most importantly, the team has improved mightily since November 11. They don't look lost on offense, and once Josh Reaves returned to the lineup their defensive prowess stepped up as well.
A more significant factor in my steadfast confidence in a quality Big Ten run for this team is that the conference appears to be in a down year. That game against Michigan State at the Palestra no longer looks unwinnable. Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin scare me the most, but there's a drop-off after those three teams. Teams who have been very hard to beat in the past (Iowa, Maryland) aren't as intimidating this year, and I'm not ready to buy in to the resurgence of Rutgers and Minnesota who put up strong records in non-conference play. I'm most looking forward to the first five games on the conference schedule, before a brutal stretch of Indiana, at Purdue, and at Wisconsin. Going 3-2, or if they can pull-off 4-1, would start to create the momentum and buzz this program has been looking for. With the talent on this team, who knows what could happen if they get hot.
I had Penn State going 9-4 in the non-conference schedule and 6-12 in Big Ten play. Even though the Lions didn't reach nine non-conference wins, I'll bump them up to seven conference victories because of how they've played since the second half of the Pitt game and the hope that the talented freshmen continue to grow into a cohesive unit that cuts to the basket aggressively instead of laying bricks from the outside.
Still, there will probably be frustrating games where the Lions turn the ball over a bunch and miss 60 percent of their shots, but there will also be games in which Mike Watkins and the defense keep Penn State's lackluster offense in the game until Shep Garner can steal it with one of his hot streaks. Watkins is quickly turning into one of the top shot blockers in the nation and is the main reason for me bumping up the win projection. However, teams I thought might fall prey to the Lions have played a lot better than expected. Minnesota, Iowa, and even Rutgers haven't looked like pushovers in the non-conference slate, and that will make for a Big Ten journey that is more perilous than it looked back in November.
My 9-4 non-conference record projection was predicated on beating Albany and George Mason. Obviously, things did not work out as I anticipated as a talented-but-young squad played maddeningly inconsistent during the first couple of months of the season. That being said, it seems like this team may have turned a corner after dominating a St. John's team, who in turn, dominated Syracuse. Perhaps neither of those teams are any good, but for a PSU squad that found itself getting worked by the likes of George Mason, it's certainly an improvement. The fab freshmen (Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins) appear to be getting more comfortable with their roles, which also alleviates the pressure from the more experienced Shep Garner and Payton Banks to be forced to carry the scoring load. Josh Reaves has also provided a boost for the team on the defensive side of the ball, even if he's not known for his scoring prowess.
I'm sticking with my 8-10 conference record prediction. The Big Ten is very top-heavy this year with Indiana, Wisconsin, Purdue, and perhaps Michigan State looking like contenders while everybody else is vulnerable in some way. I feel they can sweep Rutgers or Minnesota, (perhaps both), pull off a win at Nebraska, beat Northwestern at the BJC, knock off Illinois, and steal a couple other games from somewhere, much like they did last season in shocking Indiana and Iowa.