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Is Penn State a Big Ten contender or pretender?

Penn State had an average 2015-16 season, but can this year’s roster make the necessary leap to join the Big Ten elite?

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Ohio State vs Penn State Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

This might seem like an easy answer, because maybe it is, but Penn State has a lot to look forward to during the 2016-17 season. Though they lost their leading scorer, Brandon Taylor, there’s many returning familiar faces and a few much needed additions.

The main player that head coach Patrick Chambers has returning is junior point guard Shep Garner. There were only two players who averaged double digit points last season and that was the departed Taylor (16.3 ppg) and returning Garner (14.8). Garner is the engine that will make this Penn State team go and losing Taylor will allow him the opportunity to increase his average.

Of course Garner won’t be the only contributor, with players like Payton Banks and Josh Reaves returning as well, but he’ll be the obvious focal point of their offensive attack.

Also, the new incoming freshman point guard Tony Carr will look to have an impact too. Carr was the No.42 player in the ESPN 100 and the only top 100 player committed to the Nittany Lions. Whether it’s expected for him to make an immediate impact is subjective because being in the top 50 players of that list seems to automatically bring high expectations along with it.

The reason all of these players are being mentioned is because their importance to the team will be profound affecting wins and losses, which will determine is they are contenders or pretenders.

It’s all about record improvement for Penn State who has been the epitome of sub-par and if you’re unaware of this fact then just take a look at their record over the past three seasons:

2013-14: 16-18

2014-15: 18-16

2015-16: 16-16

Last season, as you see above, they finished as a .500 team, but generally the how is just as important as the end result.

If you look at their non-conference schedule, Penn State didn’t play against tough competition, but they boasted a solid 9-4 record before finishing with a 7-12 conference record, also losing in the first round of the Big Ten Conference Tournament to Ohio State.

Despite having two wins against ranked opponents, Indiana and Iowa, both of those wins came at home decided by a four-point margin.

With that being said, this season they’ll be playing non-conference opponents like Duke, Georgia Tech and St. John’s, which are a lot tougher. Though they will most likely lose a few of those games, it’s a good chance they will showcase a winning record once again heading into conference play.

For a team like Penn State, it will come down to the conference schedule and that’s what’s keeping them from being contenders.

Overcoming the hurdle of teams like Michigan State, Purdue, Maryland, Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Michigan is a tough task for any team, let alone a team stuck in the middle of the pack. As I said earlier it’s the how they got to be a .500 team and it goes through the Big Ten.

Right now the Big Ten hierarchy is why the Nittany Lions are pretenders and it will ultimately stay that way because they have just not yet reached the level of the elites.