It’s been a weird season.
Admittedly, that might as well be the permanent motto of Penn State basketball, but this year just feels a little, well, weirder.
Usually it’s fairly easy to peg the Lions as one of two types of teams — Good-Bad or Bad-Good.
The Good-Bad teams are the ones like last year’s NIT Champions. The 2017-’18 Penn State team was good in the sense that it had a First Team All-Conference guard, made a nice little run in the Big Ten Tournament and beat a ranked Ohio State team not once, not twice, but three (!) times. Yet despite those accomplishments, it blew one too many opportunities and found itself on the wrong side of the bubble. Good team, bad result.
The Bad-Good teams are the ones like the 2010-’11 Nittany Lions, which made the NCAA Tournament despite owning a 16-13 record ahead of that years Big Ten Tournament. The Lions used a run to the conference championship game and an incredibly weak bubble to sneak into March Madness, ultimately losing to Temple in the first round of the Big Dance. Bad(ish) team, good result.
Confused? Me too. But so is life following Penn State Nittany Lion basketball.
Nine games into the Lions’ 2018-’19 campaign, however, and you guess on if Penn State is Good-Bad, Bad-Good, or, dare I say, Good-Good is as good as mine.
Could they win the Big Ten? Probably not. But could they still put a run together and make the NCAAs? Absolutely.
Might Pat Chambers get the ax if Penn State falls short again? There’s definitely a chance. If he does, would Sandy Barbour be able to lure Thad Matta or Fred Hoiberg to State College? I wouldn’t think so (and more on this if/when the time to find a new head coach arrives).
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves and burning past the most important question — how does this team become Good-Good AND find its way into the NCAA Tournament?
As noted above, it’s possible to have a flawed and mediocre season but still find your way into March’s madness. Between an expanded field, conference tournaments, and the potential for a soft bubble, so-so teams make the Big Dance every year.
That’s not the game Penn State is trying to play in 2018-’19, however. Sure, they’d take a bid even if it meant sneaking in as a play-in program, but the Lions climb up Continual Success Mountain means making postseason appearances more than an anomaly.
And the best way to avoid any type of aberration is to punch its postseason ticket well ahead of Selection Sunday.
But how does this head-scratching team do just that?
For starters, it capitalizes on its remaining non-conference games and a much-improved Big Ten.
While losses to DePaul and Bradley are tough pills to swallow, they’re made easier thanks to the most challenging non-conference schedule of Pat Chambers’ Penn State tenure.
If the Nittany Lions run the table on its remaining out-of-conference games, Penn State would finish non-Big Ten play with a record of 9-2, including wins over Virginia Tech, NC State, and Alabama, with the latter two being played on a neutral court and in Tuscaloosa, respectively.
Pull that off, and the Lions might not even need to go .500 in conference to earn a comfortable NCAA bid. That’s what happens when the conference is having an up-year and you pad your schedule with room for error.
To make closing the non-con strong and treading water in the Big Ten possible, however, Penn State needs to find a consistent second scorer after Mr. Do-Everything Lamar Stevens.
Through his first nine games, the talented junior has been top two in Penn State’s box score on all but one occasion. On top of that, no player has really stepped up to wear the daddy pants and play No. 2 to Stevens’ Dr. Evil, with five individuals playing second fiddle in at least one game:
Very quickly teams have caught on that the blueprint to defeat Penn State is to double-team Stevens and dare anyone else wearing the blue-and-white to beat you.
One major problem for the Lions is that outside of Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins— both of whom make a single appearance on the above list and, honestly, are best at impacting a game without the basketball; Penn State’s second scoring option will have to emerge from a trio of freshmen.
To their credit, Rasir Bolton, Myles Dread, and Myreon Jones have all, on different occasions, grabbed the brass ring and showed promise that’s far beyond their “star” recruiting status’.
Jones, for example, went off against Virginia Tech and deserves all the credit for the Lions’ upset win. Dread has the body and size to compete at a high-major level and against North Florida, Jacksonville State, and DePaul went a combined 11-for-21 from three. And Bolton just went off for 27-points against Colgate and has an awful lot of Talor Battle in him.
So what’s the problem then? Penn State doesn’t just have a second scorer but runs four deep, yes?
As mentioned above, Bolton, Dread, and Jones are all freshmen and that comes with a fair amount of growing pains — like when Bolton went 0-for-10 against DePaul, or that Dread is averaging four points over his past five games, or that Jones has a negative offensive win share and a measly 7.2 player efficiency rating.
Great players like Lamar show up every night; talented young players like the freshmen trio give you flashes in the pan.
But no one is denying that all three players have talent and potential—because it’s clear that they do. The problem, however, is that Penn State needs some of that potential to start bearing consistent fruit —and quickly— as it’s fresh out of results.
It’s one of the worst cliches in college hoops, but you’ll often hear coaches state freshmen to be sophomores at some point during a player’s first year. While their class hasn’t actually changed, it’s a symbolic way of stating someone’s been through the grind enough to have move passed the rookie mistakes and first-year challenges.
For Pat Chambers, it’s important he get to make that sweeping declaration sooner rather than later. After all, the fate of Penn State’s season might just be hanging in the balance of three freshmen’s development.
So no pressure guys, we’re all just counting on you.