With their 78-51 loss to Michigan State, Penn State’s 2016-17 campaign came to an anticlimactic end. With a 15-18 record, their absence from postseason became a guarantee. A round one thriller against Nebraska showed glimpses of what the Nittany Lions could do when playing well, but the team could not sustain the same level of competition against the Spartans. Ultimately, the Big Ten Tournament performance from Penn State was a microcosm of their entire season.
Penn State began their season with an admirable slate of non-conference opponents. The schedule was highlighted by home bouts against ACC foes Duke, Georgia Tech, and Pitt. Penn State also took on Cincinnati out of the AAC. The schedule proved to be too much for the Nittany Lions, as they dropped all but their match with the Yellow Jackets.
The rest of the schedule was made of lower-tier mid-major programs. Minus a hiccup against Albany in their opener, as well as a loss to the George Mason Patriots, Penn State took care of business. All said, the quality of non-conference opposition contributed to the 41st toughest schedule, per KenPom.
Penn State showed the Big Ten that they could compete with anyone at several points during the year. Throughout conference play, the Nittany Lions beat then 24th ranked Minnesota, 21st ranked Maryland, Michigan State, and Illinois. The young group also took 14th ranked Purdue to overtime at home, though they ultimately lost. Whenever excitement and momentum would build, however, Penn State was unable to uphold their level of play.
A team constructed of no seniors and three freshmen playing huge minutes struggled to establish a consistent identity. Junior elder statesmen Payton Banks and Shep Garner caught fire from the arc and positively contributed to wins, as well as shot the team into an insurmountable hole. Tony Carr, acting like the freshman he was, struggled early with ascending to a leadership role. Lamar Stevens showcased a diverse scoring skill set, and would also disappear for games at a time.
Another large issue for the Nittany Lions could be found in the paint. Freshman forward Mike Watkins would go invisible for long stretches, while also showing flashes of elite rim protection and interior offensive force. Though Julian Moore played in spurts, Watkins was tasked to be the sole interior presence for Penn State. Watkins played well overall, however when he didn’t the team suffered greatly.
The growing pains were evident. Now in the offseason, the freshmen trio and soon to be seniors will need to find a way to gel and define their style of play. Will they be a three-point shooting team? 1 on 1 isolation? Fast break? Pick and Roll? The season was an amalgam of all play styles and unfortunately for Penn State, they weren’t necessarily great at any of them on a consistent basis.
Pat Chambers deserves much of the credit for the program’s high hopes, as well as the blame for its wildly deviating level of play. Heading into his seventh year, the Penn State coach has done a phenomenal job of establishing a talent rich recruiting pipeline in the City of Brotherly Love. Shep Garner, Tony Carr, Mike Watkins, Lamar Stevens, Nazeer Bostick and Julian Moore all hail for the Philadelphia area. Chambers has developed a strong influence in the region, most recently demonstrated by the Nittany Lions top ten 2016 recruiting class.
Despite the recruiting success, Chambers must change what he has done with the talent on the court. Penn State regularly took poor shoots from three and chaotically varied their tempo and scheme. That type of unwieldy play reflects the coaching. Chambers must identify the style of play that is most effective for their roster and avoid the drastic deviations that this season has displayed.
The good news is reinforcements are on the way. Penn State will have Virgina Tech transfer Satchel Paige and incoming freshman Trent Buttrick next season. At 7’ and 258 pounds, Paige will provide a tremendous boost to the Nittany Lions front court size. While Buttrick is more of a stretch forward, he will also contribute to an increase in Penn State’s overall interior presence.
Due to the potential Penn State has shown this past season, they should enter the 2017-18 year with a higher set of expectations. Assuming Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins improve their skills and grow their confidence, the added assumptions of success will be warranted. Ultimately, though, it will fall on the shoulders of Chambers. He must limit the inconsistent play and establish an identity for the group moving forward. If the he can do that, the sky is the limit for the Nittany Lions. If he can’t, the team will see another poor Big Ten season and early tournament exit.