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Penn State’s lack of depth poses real problem with conference play around the corner

The Nittany Lions are relying more on its starting five than any other team in the Big Ten

NCAA Basketball: Campbell at Penn State Linsey Fagan-USA TODAY Sports

Running a college basketball program is hard. Before you say “no duh” bear with me, I’m heading somewhere.

Not only do coaches need to play chef, buying the groceries and cooking the meal, but they also have their hands full with numerous other tasks and responsibilities. They need to make sure the aforementioned groceries keep their grades up, commit no NCAA violations, apologize when a violation does inevitable occur, be an ambassador to the community, schmooze over boosters, and so on and so forth.

Because of this, so much goes into perfecting the recipe that makes for an NCAA Tournament-caliber program. It involves careful consideration when recruiting freshmen to join an already established group of players, taking into account a number of variables including position, personality, and skill set.

A head coach needs to making sure any additions prove to be a component that enhances the recipe, less a future carefrontation be needed to restructure things on the fly.

It’s tough enough to do when your Mike Krzyzewski running a blue blood program like Duke. But trying to do that in the literal shadow of Beaver Stadium and the storied Penn State football program? Good luck.

That said, over the past seven years Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers has built a foundation in State College that includes a recruiting pipeline to Philadelphia while instilling a culture of #attitude amongst his roster.

In getting players like Tony Carr, Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens to Happy Valley, Chambers has the Nittany Lions cooking with truffle oil and saffron instead of the Morton salt and black pepper used during the Ed DeChellis and Jerry Dunn eras.

But as the Nittany Lions find itself in the midst of its most crucial year of Pat Chambers’ tenure, one where postseason expectations need to be met, a glaring hole is starting to emerge amongst this promising Penn State roster.

It doesn’t really have a bench.

Currently, the Nittany Lions are leaning heavily on its starting lineup of Carr, Watkins, Stevens, Josh Reeves, and Shep Garner. And its not just that this group is doing the heavy lifting when it comes to compiling points, rebounds, and blocks. Penn State’s bench is struggling to provide any meaningful minutes, putting undue stress on the Lions key contributors through the bulk of the non-conference schedule.

Taking a look at the average minutes played by the most common starting lineups for Big Ten teams (through 12/19) puts Penn State in a league all its own.

And while you could argue that Chambers riding his thoroughbreds is working, with Penn State out to its best start in years, that doesn’t tell the whole story.

As has been discussed previously, the Lions aren’t exactly facing a murders row of non-conference foes, with a strength of schedule currently hovering around the low 200s. If Chambers can’t rely on his bench to contribute against Binghamton and Campbell, what’s he going to do once Penn State starts into its conference schedule?

Furthermore, Penn State’s bench minutes have been trending in the wrong direction as the season develops.

Unsurprisingly, this lack of opportunity has led to a major lack of production for Penn State’s reserves.

Only five times has a player off Penn State’s bench contributed 10 or more points during the course of a game.

During it’s Big Ten opener at Iowa, Penn State’s bench managed to score exactly zero points during the Lions win. It then followed that performance up with a rousing one point in its next game, a 64-63 loss at home against Wisconsin.

Thankfully Pat Chambers recognizes this is a problem.

“We definitely need more from the bench,” said Chambers during his postgame press conference following the Lions defeat to the Badgers. “My bench needs to help us out and you do that by earning it in practice starting on Wednesday and again against GW on Saturday.”

Unfortunately since he made those comments, not much has changed for Penn State.

The only player consistently in the Lions rotation currently is true freshmen guard Jamari Wheeler. And while Wheeler has far exceed anyone’s wildest expectations entering the 2017-’18 season, he features more as a defensive specialist than a consistent threat on offense.

Sophomore guard Nazeer Bostick has been the Lions biggest spark offensively off the bench, having produced 10 or more points on three occurrences, including a 14-point night against Oral Roberts. But his overall contributions have been streaky at best, including missing a game recently due to disciplinary reasons.

What’s even more troubling for Penn State is that things only look bleaker when taking a look at its front court depth.

Entering the season, the expectation was that junior transfer Satchel Pierce and senior Julian Moore would be able to adequately spell Mike Watkins in the post. And while that looked to be the case early on in the season, both have recently struggled to see the court at all.

Piece hasn’t played more than 10 minutes in a game since Nov. 29 against NC State and he hasn’t scored more than 10 points since an 11-point outing against Columbia on Nov. 17. Moore, on the other hand, has only two games in which he’s logged more than 10 minutes off the bench and has yet to hit double figures. In his defense, he did have offseason knee surgery which could be contributing to his decline in production this year.

With a condensed Big Ten schedule this year due to the earlier-than-usually conference tournament, Penn State’s bench issues could be all the more troubling. And with only one game left on the non-conference schedule, Dec. 30 against Coppin State, Pat Chambers has very little time to figure out who he can trust to contribute.

But he better hope that someone, anyone, steps up soon. Otherwise come February his starting five may be running on fumes and with it so to Penn State’s postseason hopes.