In the weeks leading up to the 2017-18 college basketball season, BTPowerhouse will be releasing its preview series breaking down each Big Ten team. These will come in a set of series previewing the overall team, the team’s backcourt, wings, and big men, and the team’s schedule. Each post will take a look at its top in-depth and give predictions on the upcoming season.
Today’s edition of the ‘BTPowerhouse Preview Series’ will focus on the backcourt for Penn State. Penn State brings three starting guards back from last year’s campaign, but beyond that some questions remain.
BT Powerhouse Preview - Penn State Backcourt
2016-17 All-Big Ten Qualifiers: Tony Carr, All-Freshman Team
Key Departures: Isaiah Washington, Terrence Samuel
Additions: Jamari Wheeler, Taylor Nussbaum
Top Player: Tony Carr
Going back to the end of the Ed Dechillis era, Penn State has been known as a team with one outstanding guard that’s capable of knocking off anybody on any given night. However, they’re also known to be without enough depth to challenge for the top of the league. Taylor Battle. Tim Frazier. DJ Newbill. Depth will be a question once again in 2017-18, but the Nittany Lions have three dependable returners in the backcourt that should give them their most balanced group of guards in recent memory. This time around it will be a three-man show, rather than a one-man unit like in years past.
Penn State is one of the lucky few teams across the country that brings back all five starters from a season ago. While last year’s 6-12 finish was less than ideal, most observers expect the Nittany Lions to take a big step forward this year. The most important piece is staring point guard Tony Carr.
As a freshman Carr played more minutes than anyone else on Penn State’s roster last year: 80.6% of all minutes available, which was more than all-Big Ten performers Nigel Hayes and Caleb Swanigan. What’s more, it was more than Shep Garner, who played point in 2015-16 and had been expected to become the next Battle, Frazier, or Newbill. But with Carr’s emergence at point, Garner slid into a shooting guard role. Between the sophomore Carr and the senior Garner, Penn State’s offensive production should be high this year.
The defense will come from the third returner, junior Josh Reaves. Reaves stole the ball 4.4% of the time last year, good for tops in the entire Big Ten. In conference play that fell off to 4.1%, but that may have been because he spent more time blocking shots. Despite Reaves’ pedestrian 6’4” height, in Big Ten play he blocked 3.7% of opposing shots, which was best among all league guards. Reaves was robbed of a spot on the All-Defensive Team, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him on that list this coming year.
If there are fewer questions about Penn State’s starters than any other team in the league, the Nittany Lions might also have more questions about their bench. This is not a deep team. Reserves include sophomore Nazeer Bostick, who played very limited minutes last year. (Bostick went to the same Philadelphia high school as Carr, Garner, and forward Lamar Stevens.) Two freshmen, Jamari Wheeler and Taylor Nussbaum, round out the group. Wheeler is a three-star point guard from Florida and Nussbaum is a preferred walk-on from New York.
Despite the paper-thin bench, there are two reasons to believe a lack of depth won’t be as big a problem for Penn State as it might be. First, based on last year’s performance, the starters are not particularly foul-prone, so they should be able to stay on the floor most of the time. Second, Penn State’s out of conference schedule is Charmin-soft, and while that won’t do the Nittany Lions any favors in terms of compiling an NCAA-worthy resume, it should provide plenty of opportunities for the bench to gain valuable experience before the gauntlet of Big Ten play.
Penn State’s backcourt will be at least as good as it was last year. The question is whether it will be any better. If improvement is to come, it will need to come from the three starters, who will see the bulk of the minutes at the guard positions. Can Tony Carr make the sophomore leap? Can Josh Reaves turn into an elite defender? Will Shep Garner’s senior campaign provide veteran leadership and a steady hand? The answers to these questions will go a long way towards answering the question of whether the Nittany Lions can put together the first non-double-digit finish of the Pat Chambers era.