At 14-14, Penn State is the epitome of mediocrity in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions have shown the ability to take on Goliath, and susceptibility to lose to David. Within that ebb and flow of success and failure lies Penn State’s identity.
The team’s bane is their youth, as they are simply too green to know how to win. In 2016-17, the inconsistency has proven frustrating for the Penn State fan base. It has also put the league on notice. For freshmen Tony Carr, Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens, the Penn State ceiling is as high as they want it to be.
Let’s take a look at those freshmen now.
Point guard Tony Carr has spent the season feeling out how he fits into the Nittany Lions’ scheme. On Tuesday, everything clicked. With the big bad Boilermakers in town, Tony Carr briefly made the Big Ten forgot all about its best player Caleb Swanigan.
As Penn State’s swarming defense slowly faltered against Purdue’s relentless offensive onslaught, Carr put the world on his shoulders. Down eight, the Point guard proceeded to score eight of the teams last ten points. He wasn’t running off screens, there were no sets, simply Carr versus Purdue. His will took Penn State to overtime.
Carr has shown flashes all year, but freshman timidness kept it bottled up. Following Penn State’s embarrassing loss to Nebraska on the 14th, Patrick Chambers decided it was time to pull Carr out of his shell. The coach announced Carr would assume the role of leader of the team, and he responded.
If Tony Carr can continue to show the Nittany Lions are his team, there will be more potential upsets to come. Ultimately, Penn State will shift to the favorite.
Of the impressive freshmen trio, Lamar Stevens is the rawest. His efficiency needs to improve, but the Forward can get up. Stevens frequently turns a broken offensive set into a rim evisceration. In the second half of the Purdue game, he sliced through two defenders and assaulted the basket, putting Swanigan on a poster. The dunk was further immortalized by cracking Sportscenter’s Top 10.
When Stevens is on, he is on. Three times the freshman has scored 20+ points in the month of February alone. In their upset of Maryland on the 7th, Stevens scored 25 on 8 of 13 shooting. That performance, as well as a 23-point showing against Illinois, earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
While he has shown he can light up the scoreboard, Stevens also showcases a proficiency on the glass. On the year, he averages 5.8 rebounds a game. If he can sustain his effort on 50-50 plays, that number should only go up.
Stevens’ skill set is as diverse as it is unpolished. At 6’6”, he has the frame of a prototypical slashing wing. While demonstrating the ability to score from three, midrange, and the post, the Forward is often inconsistent and has the propensity to force his hand. As Stevens matures, he will need to show more patience and take what the defense gives him.
A 6’9” Forward turned Center, what Mike Watkins lacks in size he makes up for in attitude. Twice this season the freshman has been named Big Ten Freshman of the Week, and for good reason. A monster on the boards and vicious shot blocker, Watkins is an enforcer in the paint.
His abilities were on full display against Purdue. Someone forgot to tell the big he was supposed to be afraid of Swanigan and 7’2” Isaac Haas. With 7:38 to play in the first half, Watkins had double digits in rebounds. Everything said and done, he finished with 11 points, 13 rebounds and 3 blocks. Double-double machine Swanigan was held to 10 points and 9 rebounds.
While Watkins has displayed his defensive abilities all season, it’s his growth on the offensive end that has been the most impressive. He has scored double digits in five of the last seven Penn State contests. Most of his points come from put backs and point blank buckets, but Watkins has also shown a knack for finding space in the pick and roll. He does a great job of reading the defender and often will fake a screen and flash to the basket.
Continued improvement on offense for Mike Watkins will truly make him a dangerous force. Second in the league with 2.6 blocks per game, he’s already proven to be lethal on defense.
Potential is just a vision of what can be. For Penn State to truly enter the Big Ten’s upper echelon, their high-profile freshmen will need to continue to develop and improve. If they do, the sky is the limit. So far, the Nittany Lion’s future looks bright.