The Penn State Nittany Lions were looking up at the majority of the 14-team Big Ten conference a season ago. They finished just 7-11 in the conference and 16-16 overall. It was the team’s fourth time finishing .500 or worse in the past five years, AKA the extent of head coach Pat Chambers’ time on the Penn State bench. It was the fifth straight time the team failed to reach .500 in-conference.
A 7-11 record and 10th-place finish is actually the best Penn State have done under Chambers and it may be just the beginning of a promising future. Last year’s Nittany Lions were incredibly young. Not a single junior contributed, which means everyone on this year’s squad is now a junior or younger and only getting better. Of the top scorers, only senior Brandon Taylor is gone. Added to the mix will also be a pair of four-star recruits: point guard Tony Carr and small forward Lamar Stevens.
Last year’s team was pretty bad across the board, though worse on offense than defense. The shooting will need to improve drastically for this team to have a chance to compete. Penn State shot barely over 40 percent as a team, ranking 308th in the country. It was equally as bad from three and averaged under 66 points per game. Even in the rough and tumble Big Ten, that is a very poor mark. In fact, it ranked dead last, as did Penn State’s assist numbers. Better shooting and better sharing will lead to more points. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.
And Penn State does have a chance of scoring more this year. Beyond the new recruits, we will also see another season from experienced youngsters who were forced to dominate the action last season. Though 10 different Lions players saw at least 12 minutes of game action per night, only three attempted even 180 field goals. Two of those players, Shep Garner and Peyton Banks, were sophomores ready to contribute even more this season. With their usage rates, if they even shoot 40 percent from the floor, it will go a long way toward boosting this team’s efficiency. UConn transfer guard Terrence Samuel can also help carry the load. He never got much of a chance as a Husky but is a big-bodied perimeter player with an air of leadership. As Coach Chambers said, “he’s been a part of a national championship team, so he can constantly remind the guys in the locker room what it’s going to take to get to that level of sustainability and consistency.”
The Nittany Lions will need everyone at their best to traverse what should be a very tough Big Ten schedule this season. Of the five conference teams that PSU must face twice, two are considered among the best teams the conference has to offer. Those being Indiana and Purdue, who are widely regarded as two of the top four teams in the Big Ten. The other two teams to complete that premiere quartet would be Wisconsin and Michigan State. Unfortunately, Penn State plays neither team at home. The Wisconsin game is on the road; the MSU game is at a neutral site. It is a tough break for the Nittany Lions, who need every edge they can get in their attempts at making it into the top half of the conference standings.
On the positive side of things, they do get both Rutgers and Minnesota twice. Each team is expected to flail around in the cellar of the Big Ten. This is no guarantee Penn State will go 4-0 in those games, but it is preferable to playing home-and-home series with some of the other squads. With improvements from all the returning pieces, as well as a talented batch of incoming freshmen, Penn State is on the rise following Chambers’ fifth season. He is bringing the program in the right direction even if massive win totals are slow to follow.