Amongst the hubbub surrounding a once-promising football season, it’s easy for Penn State basketball to get lost in the shuffle. And while the hoops team has often received little fanfare in football crazed Happy Valley the tides may finally be turning for Pat Chambers and company.
Thanks to some remarkably well-constructed recruiting classes, Penn State has assembled its most complete and competitive roster since at least the 2011 NCAA Tournament team that featured four senior starters including the program’s all-time leading scorer in Talor Battle, as well as current NBAer Tim Frazier.
What’s even more encouraging for fans of the program’s much-maligned and often afterthought basketball squad is that this doesn’t look like just an aberration. For years, the Penn State basketball formula for success was to rely on the perfect storm - the right combination of under recruited players and late bloomers coming together at the right time to eek out a NCAA or NIT berth every four years or so.
However, under Chambers’ stewardship, Penn State has bucked that Hail Mary contention strategy. In its place, they’ve used some legitimate recruiting inroads in Philadelphia, where they’ve out muscled the Big 5 elite for three and four-star recruits, while also pounding the pavement in the DMV, to construct a foundation they hope will pay dividends in 2017-’18 and beyond.
Although the results have yet to show up in the win-loss column, it’s this program building that has Penn State fans cautiously optimistic that the Lions can finally play to its full potential.
So, everything is peachy keen in Happy Valley, right?
In the words of Lee Corso, not so fast!
While the trajectory for the Nittany Lions is pointing up, this team’s postseason potential (not to mention Pat Chambers’ job) could fall squarely on the broad shoulders of sophomore Mike Watkins.
For those unfamiliar with the 6-foot-11 forward from Philadelphia, Watkins is easily one of the most naturally gifted and explosive bigs Penn State has had in recent memory. His combination of size and athleticism makes him the type of player that typically doesn’t find their way up the Pennsylvania Turnpike to State College.
As a redshirt freshmen Watkins proved to be an intimidating presence on defense, providing Penn State with a legit shutdown defender around the rim, finishing 9th in the country with 2.73 blocks per game. He also chipped in with 9.7 points and 8.1 rebounds a game, and if not for consistently finding himself in foul trouble very well could have averaged a double-double.
But it’s not just foul trouble that has kept Watkins from seeing time on the court.
During his true freshmen season, Watkins was deemed academically ineligible and forced to sit out with a redshirt.
After overcoming that setback and proving to be an important piece to the Nittany Lions puzzle last season, Watkins was left in State College this past August when Penn State headed to the Bahamas for a slate of exhibition games.
At the time, Head Coach Pat Chambers put out the following statement:
It is important that our players understand that representing our program and this University is a privilege and they must meet the standards we have established for Penn State Basketball. Mike will reunite with our team when we return from our foreign trip. We will not make any further comments on this matter.
And while that alone would be enough to have the Lions starting to sweat this out, things have recently gone from bad to worse. Watkins was held out of Penn State’s two pre-season tuneup games and his status is currently being considered day-to-day due to disciplinary reasons.
With Watkins in the lineup, Penn State not only has a legitimate Big Ten forward on its roster, but some actual depth in the post with senior Julian Moore and junior transfer Satchel Pierce able to contribute meaningful minutes off the bench. With Watkins unavailable, that depth is shot with Moore or Pierce being pressed into starting duties and only true freshmen John Harrar or 6-foot-6 junior Davis Zemgulis available at Chambers disposal.
And while one could make a case that reigning Big Ten All-Freshman point guard Tony Carr is the most important player for Penn State to be successful in 2017-’18, history shows that not to be true. The Nittany Lions have had a surprisingly impressive stable of recent guards in the likes of the aforementioned Talor Battle and Tim Frazier, along with D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall. Outside of the 2011 NCAA Tournament berth, that group produced only one uninspiring CBI bid in 2014.
With senior Shep Garner, sophomore Nazeer Bostick and three-star freshmen Jamari Wheeler, Penn State is in a much better position to replace minutes at point guard this year should, God forbid, Carr miss time. But removing Watkins from the rotation could quickly drown any hopes this team has to make some serious strides forward.
There are some good signs though.
After Penn State’s 86-75 win over Campbell on Friday afternoon, Chambers did announcer that Watkins will be in the starting lineup for Sunday’s contest with Fairleigh Dickinson.
Now, the Nittany Lions need to hope that stays the case, especially once its schedule replaces the Montana’s and Columbia’s of the non-conference with the Michigan State’s and Wisconsin’s of the Big Ten.
If history has taught us anything it’s that Penn State basketball is not allowed to have nice things. But the program has to hope the Watkins saga has a happy ending for all parties involved. Otherwise, what’s being looked at as a make-or-break season in Happy Valley could be dead on arrival.