Not all 15-18 seasons are created equally. If that were the case, there would be the same feeling of doubt surrounding the Penn State basketball program this offseason that is usually there. For sure, some fans still don’t believe that Pat Chambers can build a program that wins consistently in the Big Ten, but for four and a half months last winter, we witnessed the young talent that has the potential to change that notion.
Thanks to three tremendous freshmen turned sophomores, there’s a better reason to believe in Chambers than ever before, and more optimism surrounding Penn State Basketball than we’ve seen in years.
Three talented sophomores are coming off of great freshman seasons
There were growing pains for sure, but Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins showed that they have the talent and skill needed to grow Penn State into an NCAA Tournament contender. Carr took over the point guard role right away and eventually grew into the team’s most important player due to his ability to handle the ball and create scoring opportunities not just in transition, but in the half-court offense as well.
We know from watching him during the second half of conference play that Carr has the confidence needed to lead Penn State to victories in 2018, and if he improves his jump shot and floor vision over the summer, he could become one of the best players in the Big Ten.
Stevens wasn’t as consistent throughout the campaign as Carr was, but after a rough January, he took off in February and showed off his versatile scoring ability. Although he didn’t attempt a three-point shot between November 19 and February 1, Stevens ended up shooting 34-percent from beyond the arc, which became a great compliment to his off-the-dribble game.
The third member of the trio, Watkins, might never be a huge threat on offense, but we already know how good he is at blocking shots on defense and finishing at the rim off the pick-and-roll. A nice 15-foot jumper could serve him well, but Watkins’s main value is going to be intimidating opponents in the paint and keeping them off the free throw line.
Incoming recruits could offer improved depth
Penn State wasn’t an awful team last season when the starting five was on the floor. In addition to the three rising sophomores, Josh Reaves and Shep Garner are coming back to play important roles in 2018. Most of the problems in 2017 came when Chambers needed to go to his bench, where guys like Payton Banks and Julian Moore didn’t do enough to give the starters a break.
Chambers clearly recognized this issue when he convinced Banks as well as Terrence Samuel and Isaiah Washington to graduate and continue their basketball careers elsewhere. That opened up scholarships for three incoming recruits: forwards Trent Buttrick and John Harrar as well as point guard Jabari Wheeler. None of these guys are as highly touted as the last two freshmen classes that are filling out 80 percent of the starting five, but they may improve on the bench production that was sorely lacking last season.
No major departures
There were no seniors on the 2017 team, and that means that every key contributor is returning for 2018. We won’t have to worry about how the team will respond to the loss of a great leader because that leader is still gaining experience and waiting to emerge. Will it be Shep Garner? Tony Carr? Someone unexpected? With so many returning players, Penn State will only see its team chemistry grow over the next two seasons, and that could lead to the intangible gains that the program needs to advance to the next level.