It is a big season in Happy Valley for the Penn State program. Head coach Pat Chambers is entering his ninth season as head coach and most likely needs at least an NIT berth (at the bare minimum) to continue leading the program.
Luckily for Chambers and Penn State, this is perhaps the most talent they’ve ever had. Big Ten Player of the Year candidate Lamar Stevens leads an attack that will mostly rely on him all season but has some complementary shooting from Curtis Jones and an underneath presence from Mike Watkins.
It’s now or never for the Nittany Lions with Chambers this season. Let’s take a look at their schedule and how Penn State can get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.
Holiday Season Tournament
The Nittany Lions do not participate in a single or double elimination tournament around holiday season time but do participate in the NIT Season Tip-Off against Ole Miss. The Rebels, under new head coach Kermit Davis, were one of the surprise teams in the country going 20-13 and making the NCAA Tournament. This came after the media picked them to finish last in the SEC before the season.
This year the media’s picked Ole Miss to finish 8th in the SEC. With Penn State picked 9th, this appears to be a pretty even and intriguing non-conference matchup.
The other intriguing aspect of this game is that Ole Miss will be relying on another senior in their lineup like Penn State. Preseason First Team All-SEC pick Breein Tyree will be a handful for the Nittany Lions in this contest. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged almost 18 points a game last season on 37.5 percent shooting from three-point range. If Penn State can shut down Tyree, it stands a decent chance. Take a look at some of Tyree’s highlights from a game against Middle Tennessee last season. Tyree ended with 24 points.
The Nittany Lions suit up against Georgetown in the latest version of the Gavitt Games. The Hoyas, led by Patrick Ewing, are looking for their first tournament berth since 2015. The Hoyas came close last year with a 19-15 overall record and 9-9 in the Big East. The Hoyas project to be 6th in the Big East preseason poll and were only two votes away from being 4th. With both the Hoyas and Nittany Lions looking like solid teams analytically, this is a huge non-conference game.
To defeat the Hoyas the Nittany Lions will need to shut down 6-foot sophomore guard James Akinjo. The Hoyas also welcome junior 7-foot center Omer Yurtseven from North Carolina St. to shore up their frontline. If the Nittany Lions can get the Hoyas into a rock fight with Stevens playing well, then I think they come out of D.C. with a victory. But if they turn the ball over and let the Hoyas get out in transition, it could get ugly. Take a look at some highlights from Akinjo last season.
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
Penn State welcomes Wake Forest into Happy Valley for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Nittany Lions are 4-1 over their last five ACC/Big Ten Challenges and are coming off an exciting one-point victory over Virginia Tech last season.
And the Nittany Lions should have an excellent chance to extend this mark to 5-1. The Demon Deacons project to be towards the bottom of the ACC yet again this season. If Penn State wants to make the NCAA Tournament this is a game they need to have.
A player to watch on Wake Forest’s side is senior guard Brandon Childress. The crafty 6-foot guard excels at getting to the basket and should average around 15 points a game this season. Take a look at some highlights from last season below.
- 12/7 - at Ohio State
- 12/10 - vs. Maryland
It gets tough for Penn State right out of the gate. The Nittany Lions are looking at playing two of the top three teams in their first couple of games in-conference. These games are also sandwiched in-between two games against Power 6 schools in Wake Forest and Alabama.
A 1-1 stretch here is the goal. After this point, Penn State’s conference schedule is pretty manageable. If they lose both, they cannot let it snowball like last season.
Best Chance For An Upset
Gotta be March 3rd in a home game against Michigan State, right? The Nittany Lions last beat Michigan State in a game at the Palestra in 2017. This matchup will be from Happy Valley this time and could be a tournament-sealing opportunity for Penn State. T-Rank puts Penn State’s chances at 44 percent and predicts a close 76-74 victory for the Spartans. Not bad odds against the best team in the country.
Take a look at Penn State’s entire Big Ten schedule below.
It’s a massive year for Pat Chambers and the Penn State program. The talent is there to make a tournament run, but can they put it all together? The non-conference schedule has some tough games on it but should be manageable for a team that is tournament-ready. It could equally go the other way though.
A nice start with a 1-1 stretch in the first two Big Ten games puts them in a nice position in Big Ten play. What they want to avoid is a script like last season. A sluggish start in non-conference play, and then a giant 0-7 hole in conference play. Penn State played NCAA Tournament-level basketball over its last 11 games, but that’s not going to be good enough this year. This is the year it has to happen for Pat Chambers. These Nittany Lions should be a fascinating team to watch.