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2016-’17 Penn State Nittany Lions Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Penn State Nittany Lions and what fans should expect for the program heading into the 2016-’17 season.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Penn State William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

The 2016-’17 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2016-’17 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers said team.

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Hope.

It’s just one word, but it brings so many thoughts to mind. It’s that energy that keeps people going in times of trouble and it’s that yearning that allows people to keep dreaming that there are better days ahead, even if the writing on the wall doesn’t give them any reason to believe so.

Maybe it’s a bit hyperbolic to say, but generally speaking, hope for Penn State basketball has been dead for much of the last few decades. Sure, there were the back-to-back 20 win seasons in 1996 and the surprising NCAA Tournament trip in 2011, but broadly speaking, there hasn’t been a lot to hope about.

Year after year, it’s been the same narrative and the same results. Penn State is coming off a struggling season, fans try to find a few positives, and usually resign to another rough season by late November.

Losing sucks.

Being irrelevant is even worse.

And honestly, there weren’t many that expected a change to that formula anytime soon. Penn State would pull off an upset once in awhile, limp toward the end of the season, and eventually, rotate in another head coach to repeat the painful cycle. Fans don’t necessarily have to admit it, but let’s be honest, that’s what we were all thinking.

But then it hit for the Nittany Lions.

Hope again.

Like that Star Destroyer rolling onto the screen in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Penn State started making noise. First it was a commitment from Mike Watkins in 2014, then a bigger one from Josh Reaves in 2015, and now, the program has arguably its best recruiting class ever. Maybe it’s all for naught, but it’s been an astounding shakeup for a program that, frankly, didn’t get and didn’t deserve much media attention.

If Penn State does reach its dreams with its newfound recruiting success, it likely won’t come for another year or two. However, with intriguing returners like Shep Garner and Reaves, there’s a lot to like about where the Nittany Lions are heading. With an upset here or there, perhaps the roster is even good enough for a postseason bid.

It should be an interesting season for Penn State and with that, here’s a look at what to expect this year.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Penn State Nittany Lions, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Nittany Lions, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Chad Markulics of Roar Lions Roar breaking down Penn State's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2015-’16 Season Performance

  • Record: 16-16 (7-11)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #140
  • RPI Rating: #121
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Penn State was one of the Big Ten teams that got caught in the middle last year. The team didn’t really achieve any major goals, but it, uh . . . was alright? It was just one of those seasons where nobody expected a ton out of the Nittany Lions, the team didn’t deliver much, and nobody was really upset. With the way recruiting fell, the focus (rightly so) was always going to be on the 2016-’17 season and not last year.

Despite losing the same amount of games (16) as during the 2014-’15, Penn State did take a significant stepback statistically last season. The Nittany Lions slid from No. 82 to No. 146 on KenPom’s ratings, which was largely a product of defensive and fouling issues. Again, that regression didn’t show up much in the record, but it did play into losses to teams like Duquesne and Radford.

What’s also frustrating about that statistical regression is that although it didn’t show up a ton in the losses, it definitely hurt Penn State in its win total. There were a lot of Big Ten teams that would have been vulnerable against Penn State, but the Nittany Lions couldn’t capitalize. In particular, losses to Nebraska, Northwestern, and Ohio State (twice) stand out. Considering that all three of those teams were about where Penn State was last year or below, it’s not hard to imagine Penn State stealing a game or two out of those without the regression.

This regression is something I worried about in last year’s preview:

Penn State had enough upsets to keep fans interested, but last year was truly a transitional one for the program. With so many offseason losses, there just wasn’t enough talent and experience to overcome it. However, the hope will have to be that the transition can lead to bigger things this season.

Highlights of the season included non-conference wins over DePaul and Louisiana Monroe and upset wins over Indiana and Iowa. Notably, Louisiana Monroe, Indiana, and Iowa all made the postseason. Low points of the season included non-conference losses to Duquesne and Radford.

Individual statistical leaders were Jordan Dickerson, Shep Garner, and Brandon Taylor. Dickerson led the team in blocks. Garner led the team in minutes, steals, assists, and total win shares. Taylor led the team in points, rebounds, and usage.

2. Offseason Exits

During the offseason, Penn State has seen a notable group of contributors and role players depart the roster. These players were Jordan Dickerson, Devin Foster, Donovan Jack, and Brandon Taylor. All four players graduated. Of these departures, the most significant will come from Dickerson, Jack, and Taylor.

While Taylor never seemed to get the national attention he probably deserved, he was a massive contributor for the Nittany Lions that will not be easily replaced. He averaged 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds a game and was easily Penn State’s most utilized player offensively (second in the Big Ten), taking 30.2 percent of the team’s shots. Add in that he was arguably the team’s best rebounder and one of its top three-point shooters and it’s pretty easy to see why losing Taylor is a big deal for Penn State.

None of the other departures are close to what Taylor represents, but the combination of Dickerson and Jack is a pretty significant one. That’s because those two accounted for nearly all of Penn State’s minutes at the five and Jack was a bench option behind Taylor at the four as well. Neither was particularly great last year, but it’s the combination of losing 29.3 minutes a game at essentially one position that raises the red flag. Between these two and Taylor, Penn State is losing essentially all of its frontcourt options from last season.

The last departure comes from Foster, who was a respectable bench option last season. He played 45.6 percent of Penn State’s minutes last year and was pretty efficient in limited time. Outside of a potential experience loss, his departure shouldn’t be too hard for Penn State to replace this season.

Penn State fans are going to be excited about this season (for many of the reasons described below), but the one dirty little secret that’s being swept under the rug is that the team is losing a massive amount of production from its frontcourt. There will certainly be opportunities for Penn State to develop replacements, but don’t overlook the impact of what could be a difficult transition upfront.

3. New Additions

Penn State is set to add an enormous amount of talent heading into this season. That group consists of three recruits and two transfers. The recruits are Nazee Bostick, Tony Carr, and Lamar Stevens. Both Carr and Stevens are four-star prospects and Bostick is a three-star per 247Sports. Carr is listed as a point guard and Bostick and Stevens are listed as small forwards.

The incoming recruit receiving the most attention is Carr. Not only is he rated as the No. 1 player out of Pennsylvania and the No. 51 player in the 2016 class, but he’s the type of talent that could start early on. The transition to college is never an easy one, but Carr figures to be a prime contender for Big Ten Freshman of the Year and should be a key factor in whether the Nittany Lions can reach the team’s goals this year.

Bostick and Stevens are also solid prospects. However, they come without the hype and acclaim of Carr and join what figures to be a pretty deep wing group for Penn State. There’s just so much returning depth and experience there between players like Payton Banks, Josh Reaves, and Isaiah Washington that getting time will be tough.

Along with the recruiting additions, Penn State will be adding two transfers in Julian Moore and Terrence Samuel. Though Moore will be ineligible this year due to NCAA transfer rules, Samuel is projected by most to get some major minutes in either the backcourt or the wing. He probably won’t be quite good enough to dominate a starting role, but one would expect that Samuel will get major minutes this season at least as a role player.

There’s always a question as to how quickly newcomers can adjust to their new roles, but Penn State is adding a tremendously talented group on paper this year. With at least one starter quality option in this group and a few more potential bench contributors, expect Penn State’s newcomers to make a big mark early on this year.

4. Team Strengths

Although it’s hard to predict strengths on a team that will largely be led by newcomers this year, two spots where Penn State figures to have a few spots where it can gain an advantage. These areas figure to be in controlling the ball and protecting the rim.

During last season, one of the biggest strengths for Penn State was controlling turnovers. The Nittany Lions ranked No. 94 nationally in offensive turnover rate and did a nice job across the lineup of avoiding turnovers. Most of the team had a turnover rate around 16.0 or less which is relatively decent. Now, with most of the backcourt returning and some notable additions, expect the team to once again be solid at controlling possessions.

Additionally, Penn State could quietly figure to be one of the Big Ten’s better teams at protecting around the rim. Penn State might not have a shot blocker like an AJ Hammons, but Julian Moore (4.0) and Josh Reaves (4.2) both had respectable block rates in limited time and if a player like Mike Watkins can protect the rim, this could be a dangerous team defensively in the paint and around the rim.

5. Team Weaknesses

There are certainly spots to be optimistic about for Penn State heading into this season, but there are also going to be some areas of major concern. No areas look like bigger red flags than the team’s perimeter shooting and its play on the boards. Both will be affected tremendously by offseason losses and there might not be an easy answer to fixing either over the course of this season.

Perhaps the biggest concern of these two areas will be Penn State’s perimeter shooting. Although Penn State ranked No. 300 nationally last season in team three-point percentage, it did have some solid performances from time to time. Maybe that sounds odd, but when so much of your shooting is linked to three players (Banks, Garner, and Taylor), things are going to go hot and cold.

However, with 21.4 percent of the team’s three-point attempts leaving with Taylor alone, finding productive long range shooters has to be a top priority for Chambers and his staff. Shep Garner and Payton Banks both did some nice things last year, but Penn State failed to have any players make the top 25 in the Big Ten last season. As such, Penn State will have to hope some freshmen can step up this year.

Penn State’s rebounding will also be a major issue heading into this season. The team is losing its top rebounder in Taylor and two of its top three with Taylor and Dickerson. Considering that Jack was also a decent rebounder in limited time, Penn State could regress significantly on the boards this year and it only ranked No. 149 and No. 206 in defensive and offensive rebounding rates respectively.

There’s no debating that Penn State can overcome these weaknesses if some things go right, but unless it can find some production outside the arc and on the boards, perhaps that new talent could be negated for much of this season.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, there was a lot of uncertainty as to who would be Penn State’s best player by season’s end. However, as Brandon Taylor emerged into a legitimate start, that debate was largely put to rest. He finished the year averaging an impressive 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds a game and was the key factor in all of Penn State’s major wins. But with his departure, there will be a huge void on Penn State’s roster heading into this fall.

While the easy answer for Penn State’s best player would be Shep Garner, one has to wonder about how much more he can improve during his senior year. Garner was productive last season with 14.8 points, 3.4 assists, and 3.2 rebounds per game, but he still needs to improve his consistency and his interior game if he hopes to be one of the Big Ten’s best players this season.

Outside of Garner, the easy choice would be freshman Tony Carr. He enters the program with a tremendous amount of hype and could be Penn State’s most talented addition in the online recruiting era. It’s always hard to pick a freshman to be a team’s best player, but if there’s a guy that can do it, Carr seems like the pick.

Two other potential sleepers are Josh Reaves and UConn transfer Terrence Samuel. Although both have significant gaps (offense and outside shooting) in their games, if they can improve their weaknesses, each could be dynamic for the Nittany Lions.

7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/4 - Lock Haven (Ex.)
  • 11/1 - Albany
  • 11/13 - Duquesne
  • 11/15 - Grand Canyon
  • 11/19 - Duke (Uncasville, Conn.)
  • 11/20 - Cincinnati/Rhode Island (Uncasville, Conn.)
  • 11/23 - Colgate
  • 11/26 - at George Washington
  • 11/29 - Georgia Tech
  • 12/3 - Wright State
  • 12/7 - George Mason
  • 12/10 - Pittsburgh (Newark, N.J.)
  • 12/18 - St. John’s (New York, N.Y.)
  • 12/21 - Morgan State
  • 12/27 - Northwestern
  • 1/1 - at Rutgers
  • 1/4 - at Michigan
  • 1/7 - Michigan State
  • 1/14 - Minnesota
  • 1/18 - Indiana
  • 1/21 - at Purdue
  • 1/24 - at Wisconsin
  • 1/28 - Illinois
  • 2/1 - at Indiana
  • 2/4 - Rutgers
  • 2/7 - Maryland
  • 2/11 - at Illinois
  • 2/14 - at Nebraska
  • 2/21 - Purdue
  • 2/(25/26) - at Minnesota
  • 2/28 - Ohio State
  • 3/5 - at Iowa

Penn State’s non-conference schedule probably won’t get a ton of attention nationally, but this is quietly one of the more intriguing schedules in the Big Ten. Not only does it feature top-end opponents in Duke and PIttsburgh, but it has a handful of respectable opponents on the slate.

As mentioned, the two biggest games will be neutral site matchups with Duke and Pittsburgh. Those two will likely be losses, but matchups with George Washington, Georgia Tech, and St. John’s (all top 110 KenPom teams), are winnable and games against Albany, Duquesne, George Mason, and Grand Canyon (all top 200 KenPom teams) could build the team’s resume. Most likely, Penn State will finish with at least four losses in conference play given the two elite and a few more decent opponents.

Things figure to get even more challenging in Big Ten play. Penn State will get Illinois, Minnesota, and Rutgers twice this year (talk about a nice draw), but the conference is just so deep that even a decent Penn State team could finish with a losing record. To put this in perspective, consider that just two of Penn State’s first eight conference games will come against teams outside the top 50 on KenPom at home.

Yeah, it’s going to be challenging.

Perhaps Penn State can show renewed focus at home and find ways to take care of business in the easier Big Ten games, but with so many quality opponents on the schedule, expect a losing record. Based upon the opponents, Penn State will likely finished with somewhere between four and seven conference wins.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Tony Carr (Fr.) - 90%
  • SG: Shep Garner (Jr.)- 95%
  • SF: Josh Reaves (So.) - 70%
  • PF: Payton Banks (Jr.) - 60%
  • C: Julian Moore (Jr.) - 55%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

Penn State’s backcourt doesn’t figure to have a lot of drama this season. Tony Carr and Shep Garner should easily be the top options and each look like the starters at point guard and shooting guard respectively. Both are also talented enough to play each position. As such, expect these two to get time at both spots.

Alongside Carr and Garner figures to be an intriguing wing group. While Josh Reaves is more of a natural two guard than a three, his size, athleticism, and defensive abilities give him the option to play here. He figures to land a starting job, but will have to battle Terrence Samuel, Isaiah Washington, and both freshmen wings. Payton Banks looks like a pretty safe bet to start at the four considering his size and long range shooting.

The Nittany Lions should also have an intriguing battle upfront. Julian Moore and Mike Waktins are clearly the options now that Joe Hampton transferred, but neither is a sure thing. Moore was pretty meh during limited minutes last year and Watkins has yet to play a minute at Penn State. The safest bet is that the two will split most of the minutes at the five, but Moore looks like the most likely pick given his experience.

9. Team Perspective From Chad Markulics of Roar Lions Roar

“It's year six for Pat Chambers in State College, but in many ways it feels like the beginning. Finally, his efforts in recruiting Philadelphia are bearing fruits in the form of four freshmen, and finally it feels like he has a roster than can hang with some of the Big Ten's best.

Okay, that last part might still be another year away. The fact is, aside from three or four known quantities on this current roster, nobody outside of that practice gym knows just how good this team will be. There's legitimate four-star talent in Josh Reaves, Mike Watkins, Tony Carr, and Lamar Stevens, but aside from Reaves' mononucleosis-tarnished 2016 season, nobody knows just how good these kids will be. One would venture a guess that they're going to make a big impact - the calm and collected Carr seems the most likely candidate to become The Guy from this group - but can they shoulder the weight of Penn State basketball fans' expectations from the get go?

(Ok, they probably can. Nittany Lions basketball fans aren't known for their rabid nature. You knew this.)

Fan pressure is one thing, but when their coach takes a public stance that the program "needs to make the NIT or NCAA Tournament" to show progress? That's not normal. Not from a head coach who could be facing a rather warm seat in another 18 months, if they don't get him to that promised land at the end of their sophomore years.

But, that's far beyond the scope of this season preview. The freshmen won't have to do it alone, both this year and next. Without a senior on the 2016-17 roster, the possibility exists that the same 12 guys (plus a possible addition over the summer) will be together for two whole years. That's two more years of program old heads Shep Garner, Payton Banks, Terrence Samuel, and Julian Moore, all of whom have major roles to play. Garner will likely make a transition off the ball in the hopes that he'll find more catch-and-shoot opportunities from Carr and Samuel, the latter a tough UConn transfer with a national championship pedigree. Banks has developed into a leader in his three years at PSU; can he develop a consistent outside jumper and still bang inside where he'll be sorely needed on a team with two true bigs? Speaking of bigs, Moore is approaching put up or shut up time. He'll have to avoid foul trouble at all costs without sacrificing tenacity on the glass or rim protection, things he hasn't been able to do with regularity as a reserve.

So as you can see, there are a ton of questions for Penn State in 2016-17. The difference between this year and [quickly flips through Penn State record books] almost every previous year in State College? There's reason to believe these questions will finally have satisfying answers.” - Chad Markulics of Roar Lions Roar.

10. Overall Season Outlook

There’s a lot for Penn State fans to feel good about entering this season. The team is adding a fantastic recruiting class, returns some nice contributors, and should improve over the next few years. Additionally, Pat Chambers has finally made Penn State (somewhat) relevant in college basketball and fans should be excited about that.

Unfortunately, it’s still probably a year too early for Penn State to reach some of the program’s lofty goals. Even with that added talent, this is still a young team with what figures to be a pretty underwhelming frontcourt. The backcourt should keep things interesting, but unless Penn State can find a big man or two and improve its perimeter shooting, there’s only so much those freshmen can do this season.

The good news is that with some major opponents on the schedule and a challenging, but exciting Big Ten slate, Penn State should have more than enough opportunities to grow as a team. If the youth can continue to develop, this could be a team nobody wants to play in February and March. And if so, that would be more than enough progress given Penn State’s last few years.

Maybe Penn State won’t be in Big Ten title contention, but for the first time in forever, the team should be exciting and building toward something that could be special.

Big Ten Prediction: 11th Place