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Penn State looks to continue progressing as non-conference play winds down

The Nittany Lions have a lot to be thankful for through its first seven games of 2017-’18

NCAA Basketball: Montana at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

After some less than inspiring results during Feast Week, quite a few teams around the Big Ten are thankful to see the holiday week come to a close. Luckily for Penn State, it managed to navigate its time at the Legends Classic in Brooklyn as many would have surmised; embarrassing the once mighty Pittsburgh Panthers at Barclays Center before going toe-to-toe (but ultimately fading late) against nationally-ranked Texas A&M.

While the season is still very young, one could argue that the recent conference results point to a Big Ten that may be headed towards a down year. For a talented but young Nittany Lions team whose trajectory has been pointing up, this could mean being on the verge of success, albeit a year earlier than many would have predicted.

It’s this upward momentum in State College that’s leaving fans of the Lions thankful, while making Sandy Barbour and the entire Penn State Athletics department happy that they’ve bought into the program Patrick Chambers is building.

As we enter the final few non-conference games before Big Ten play picks up in full swing, there’s plenty of other things Penn State should be thankful for. That said, there’s also a few things Chambers and company should have on their Black Friday shopping list if they want to keep pushing the 2017-’18 version of the Lions to its full potential.

And as cliche as it is to hit you with a Thanksgiving/Holiday-themed column, that’s exactly what we’re going to do. Here are a few things the Nittany Lions should be thankful for or shopping for as the calendar turns to December.

Thankful for Jamari Wheeler: Following the conclusion of the 2016-’17 season, the Lions were expected to be awfully quiet on the recruiting front as they had no upcoming scholarships available. But three transfers quickly changed that plan and left coach Chambers with two options. Either he hold those scholarships for the class of 2018, where the Lions had a number of high profile targets, or look to scavenge what was left amongst the recruiting landscape for any diamonds in the rough. He chose the latter.

And he’s lucky that he did. After being passed over by a few grad and junior college transfers, Chambers secured a commitment from the late blooming Jamari Wheeler. At the time, I don’t think anyone thought Wheeler would be contributing during his freshmen campaign.

Boy, were we all wrong. In the Lions first seven contests, Wheeler is averaging 19 minutes a game while proving to be a defensive spark plug. This past Friday against Oral Roberts, he had a true breakout performance scoring 14 points to go along with seven rebounds, five steals and four assists.

Wheeler has quickly emerged as a key member of Penn State’s rotation while garnering comparisons to recent Nittany Lion Tim Frazier.

Shopping for 3-point shooting: For much of last season, Penn State struggled to find any presence shooting the ball from beyond the arc. And while the Lions have improved in more than a few areas so far this year, 3-point shooting is still an issue.

Currently Penn State is ranked 194th in the nation with a 34.4 3-point field goal percentage. Senior guard Shep Garner, who was expected to be the Lions most reliable presence from three, has been inconsistent at best.

Whether it’s Garner finding a rhythm or junior guard Josh Reaves continuing to improve his shooting, it’s crucial that Penn State find someone to contribute consistently by the time Big Ten conference play rolls around.

Thankful for defensive efficiency: One area the Lions have show improvement in is its play on defense. As of Friday evening, Penn State’s KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency rating was 16th in the nation. Mike Watkins is 2nd in the NCAA in blocks with 21, while the Nittany Lions as a team are 3rd overall with 42.

And it’s not just protecting the rim where Penn State is excelling, checking in at 2nd in the country with 77 steals.

Most importantly these turnovers are leading to points, as evident by this 41 second span from Friday evenings game:

12:58 Lamar Stevens Steal. 5 - 15

12:54 Jamari Wheeler made Layup. Assisted by Josh Reaves. 5 - 17

12:37 Jamari Wheeler Steal. 5 - 17

12:35 Jamari Wheeler made Layup. 5 - 19

12:15 Jamari Wheeler Steal. 5 - 19

12:13 Jamari Wheeler made Layup. 5 - 21

Shopping for more fans at the BJC: The Penn State community has never shied away from supporting its sports programs. James Franklin has made it well-known that the football team roles #107kStrong, but fans sporting the blue and white also pack Rec Hall for wrestling and women’s volleyball, while Pegula Ice Arena has been filled to capacity since it opened in 2013.

Yet this level of support has never really transferred over to the basketball team. It’s easy to make excuses as to why that is —lackluster play, an uninspiring list of non-conference opponents, games often scheduled at odd times and days of the week, and the Bryce Jordan Center having about as much aesthetics at the Batcave.

But none of those things should matter this year. If the team continues to play well and make a push towards the postseason, it should garner the same level of interest and fan support offered to Penn State’s other sports.

If Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins continue to keep the Lions playing at a high level, convincing the Penn State community to give the hoops team a chance shouldn’t be that difficult to do. Here’s hoping that’s the case.