Penn State has shown difficulty in deciding what kind of team it wants to be this season. After an impressive upset victory over the then ranked 24th Minnesota Golden Gophers on January 14th, they proceeded to lose 5 of their next 6 games. During the skid, the Nittany Lions dropped a home game to lowly Rutgers, contributing to half of the Scarlett Knights’ Big Ten wins.
Piling up losses marred the confidence of the young group. Just as the season appeared to be lost, the team rallied and knocked off the the 21st ranked Maryland Terrapins. The momentum of the victory carried into Champaign, where the Nittany Lions manhandled the Illini.
But the follow up?
An 18 point beat down at the hands of an 11-14 Nebraska team.
Simply put, the Penn State Nittany Lions campaign has been an entry level course on inconsistency. To Penn State’s credit, the quality of play is not an indictment of the team’s talent. The issue ultimately lies in their youth. Of the fourteen roster spots, nine are inhabited by sophomore or freshmen. Time will certainly aid the Nittany Lion maturation, but three simple tweeks will help them in the interim.
-Issues in Transition
For a team that relies on athleticism defensively, it’s a bit enigmatic that the Nittany Lions struggle as much as they do in the open court. The issues arise when speedy guards turn rebounds and steals into quick, explosive offensive possessions. Somehow teams have found ways to create these situations even on inbound passes. Lapses in awareness and effort in transition consistently flip momentum away from the Nittany Lions.
When limiting a team’s speed in transition and forcing a half-court game, the defense excels. The roster is chalk full of length and quickness, most notably with guard Josh Reeves and his Big Ten leading 2.2 steals per game.
On ball screens, Reeves, Shep Garner, Lamar Stevens and Tony Carr are interchangeable parts, switching effortlessly. If a ballhandler does slip through, Mike Watkins and his 2.6 blocks a game keeps the rim relatively unscathed.
Recently, coach Patrick Chambers has relied on a light pressure, ¾ court man to man press. By stopping the basket bleeding and allowing the defense to settle into their strength, the press is incredibly effective.
As Penn State makes a push for an NIT bid and a competitive showing in the Big Ten tournament, the press must be unleashed early and often. Neutralizing opportunities for mental errors and creating situations for instinctual play in the half court is a must.
Forward Payton Banks is highly flammable. In the Nittany Lions’ 83-70 victory over Illinois, Banks put up 24 points on 8 of 12 shooting. Overall, Banks is hitting at a 37% clip from the arc. Performances in which the junior wing shoots at least 50% from the field, the Nittany Lions are 7-1.
In their 18-point loss to Nebraska, Banks was 2 for 10. The overtime loss at Indiana saw him shoot 4 of 13. A similar performance contributed to Penn State’s 27-point loss at Wisconsin, as Banks made 4 shots on 12 attempts.
Penn State must do a better job of corralling Banks’ erratic performances. Though he shows flashes of green light shooting ability, often a high volume does not pull him out of a slump. As long threes miss, guards have a much easier time exploiting the Nittany Lion transition deficiencies.
Banks is an excellent sixth man capable of instant offense, but when the spark isn’t there Terrence Samuel and Nazeer Bostick may need to see more minutes.
-The Floor General
Penn State is highly effective in an up-tempo offense. When the break stops, though, their flow frequently stops with it. The team will generally settle into motionless, one on one isolation attacks. The result is too often a forced, contested attempt as the shot clock expires.
If the Nittany Lions find ways to screen, weave and cut with purpose the offense is successful. The key to getting into smart clean sets is Tony Carr. Now, it’s time for the freshman point guard to embrace it.
Chambers acknowledges the need for Carr to step into a larger leadership role. “I think Tony is ready for that torch. I think he’s ready and he’s willing and he wants it. And were going to give it to him,” Chambers said in a recent press conference.
Carr seems up to the challenge. Later in that same press conference, the point guard noted “I just want to continue to lead by example. I just want to step my game up and kind of just become one of the hardest workers on the team even more now […].”
When Carr is at the top of his game, the offense gains a noticeable boost. In the pick and roll, he and Watkins demonstrate the ability to scan the defense and make the correct read. If Carr slips into the paint, often the defense collapses and he finds open teammates. As space is created, Stevens benefits as well.
Carr’s orchestration of ball movement around the perimeter causes opposing defenses to fall a step behind in their shift. Meanwhile Stevens can get to the block, establish position and get a great face up look in the interior.
If the Nittany Lions can find their defensive focus in transition, reign in Payton Banks and unleash Tony Carr as a true floor general they have potential to create some havoc in the Big Ten tournament and beyond. With less than a month left in the regular season, the time is now.