Penn State appeared to be back to square one after their home opening loss against Albany and showed signs of a very inexperienced team. The team has three new starters in freshmen Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and redshirt-freshman Mike Watkins, and do not return one senior.
However, the team is now 5-3, with the other two losses having come against ranked Duke and Cincinnati. This team has been getting better with every game, with all five starters scoring in double figures and are currently on a three game winning streak.
Head coach Pat Chambers had one of his best offseason in terms of his recruiting in 2016, including getting point guard Tony Carr, the highest rated recruit of the 2016 class, as well as Lamar Stevens and Nazeer Bostick, all of whom played at Roman Catholic in Philadelphia. This class was really important for the Nittany Lions because it was the first time Penn State dominated the in-state recruiting, getting the players from Philadelphia that normally go to Villanova or Temple.
Tony Carr, the Pennsylvania state player of the year during his senior season, is the reason why Penn State fans are looking towards the light at the end of the tunnel. Carr is a do it all guard that can go get a basket and create his own shot, while also being able to break down the defense and find open shooters. Carr is fourth in the conference in scoring, averaging 13.0 points, while also being among the leaders in the conference in assists at 3.9 per game.
The other freshmen that Nittany Lions fans are excited about are Stevens and Watkins, who have helped solidify their frontcourt.
Stevens has been a really nice surprise for Chambers this season averaging 12.5 points per game, as he brings some versatility offensively, being able to handle the ball on the fast break, as well as take it deep into the block. Watkins has also been important to establishing a strong interior defense that struggled to stop anyone last season. He currently sits at number two in the Big Ten in blocks at 3.1 per game. Coach Chambers has expressed his excitement about the red-shirt freshman saying how great it is for people to see how special he is.
This team at times really shows their inexperience, going through bad stretches during the games, making forced turnovers and having trouble closing out tight games. This is where captains Shep Garner and Payton Banks really step up and teach these young players what it takes to win games.
Garner was arguably the team’s best player last season and continues to lead the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game, as well as have strong leadership in the locker room. With a lot of young players contributing, it can be frustrating for an established player to go through tough stretches. Garner has been outstanding in crunch time during games to lead and close out wins for the Nittany Lions.
There is no question that the team we see now will be wildly better than the team we see in late February. The Big Ten is not very strong this season and if players improve at the rate they are right now, the Nittany Lions could very possibly make some noise during conference play, as well as in the conference tournament. This team will grow and improve together over the next few years, and these raw talents will shape into a very solid team. If Chambers can keep establishing the program as a solid recruiter, the Nittany Lions could begin to climb in the conference.
All we can do now is watch this team improve. Every young team, even Kentucky, goes through growing pains at some point in the season. The difference is, that this team will remain together for some years to come and could really shake up the Big Ten.