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2019-’20 Penn State Nittany Lions Basketball Season Preview

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BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Penn State Nittany Lions and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2019-’20 season.

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

7-3The 2019-’20 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2019-’20 ‘season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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Well, here we go again.

Generally speaking, when I start my Big Ten previews, I have something a little better than that. Something about where the program’s been and where it could be headed. But for Penn State, that’s all I have. Why? Because the program seems destined to sit on a treadmill swinging between irrelevance and mediocre.

When Pat Chambers was originally hired to take over in 2011, expectations were not remarkably high. Penn State has consistently struggled to put a consistent product on the floor. Ed DeChellis has made the NCAA Tournament just once in his eight years at the helm and the Nittany Lions were without an NCAA Tournament win since 2001. By any reasonable evaluation, Chambers wasn’t stepping into a great situation.

But even with that in mind, Chambers has struggled to find consistency. He has an overall record of 127-140 (.476) since taking over a putride mark of 45-101 (.308) in Big Ten play during the same time period. Penn State has also finished at .500 or below six times in his eight years. And as he prepares to enter his ninth season with the program, Chambers has yet to take the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, his only notable postseason appearance was in 2018, when he led Penn State to the NIT title.

For better or worse, though, Penn State has opted to stick with Chambers. Regardless of one’s opinion about Chambers’ future, he’s certainly going to be around for at least one more year. And considering the administration’s reluctance to move on, it seems likely he could be around for several more years.

The good news for fans is that this figures to be one of Chambers’ better rosters heading into the season. Penn State returns a legitimate star in Lamar Stevens and also has a variety of potential contributors around him in Mike Watkins and Jamari Wheeler among others. Penn State also showed a lot of promise down the stretch last season, winning seven of the team’s final 10 regular season games. That run also included wins over top 50 teams in Maryland, Michigan, and Nebraska.

The question will be whether Chambers can get the roster to play well enough together to get into serious consideration for the NCAA Tournament by season’s end. And while the past doesn’t dictate the future, it’s hard to feel much confidence in predicting this to be the year Chambers finally gets it done. The last two teams had more talent than this group on paper and failed to make the Big Dance, including last year’s team, which finished with a 14-18 overall record and 7-13 mark in Big Ten play. Many of the losses were close, but this team needs to find a way to win a lot of those close games with less talent. That’s not an easy task.

Still, Penn State has the pieces to make some noise this year. So, can Chambers get it done? Let’s take a look.

1. 2018-’19 Season Performance

  • Record: 14-18 (7-13)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #43
  • NET Rating: #49
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A

Penn State had a pretty bizarre run last year. Depending on when you tuned in, your opinion of the Nittany Lions could vary pretty substantially. There were times when Penn State looks downright terrible and others when the group played like a top 25 unit. And it wasn’t on a nightly basis. It would swing for months at a time.

Things started off on a mixed note. Penn State scored a huge win over Virginia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but otherwise struggled in non-conference play. The team was just 7-6 overall heading into January and blew games against Bradley and DePaul, among others. The team’s resume wasn’t atrocious, but would need some improvement if Penn State was going to push for the NCAAs.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go well after that.

Penn State opened up January by dropping eight in a row, including games against underwhelming opponents like Minnesota, Nebraska, and Rutgers. The Nittany Lions also lost five of those eight at home. The stretch destroyed any reasonable chance the team had of making a serious push at the NCAAs.

Things did, however, turn around after that. After losing eight in a row, Penn State went 7-3 over its next 10 games, including wins over top 25 opponents in Michigan and Maryland. The win over the Wolverines was particularly impressive, as Michigan ended up going on to make the Sweet 16. Penn State jumped nearly 30 spots on KenPom during that run.

And right when things seemed to be going so well, Penn State dropped right back down, losing to Minnesota in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament and destroying any late hope the team had of making the postseason. The loss to Minnesota wasn’t that bad in a vacuum, but it was after reeling off such a great run.

The result of these massive swings back and forth was an underwhelming team profile. Penn State finished with a 14-18 overall record and well below .500 in Big Ten play. It was a frustrating result considering how well the Nittany Lions played at times.

Highlights of the season included wins over Maryland, Michigan, and Virginia Tech. Low points of the season were the losses to Bradley, DePaul, and Rutgers and the loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament.

Individual statistical leaders were Josh Reaves, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins. Reaves led the team in assists and steals. Stevens led the team in minutes, points, rebounds, usage, and total win shares. Watkins led the team in blocks.

2. Offseason Exits

There are plenty of teams in the Big Ten this year that got hit pretty hard with offseason departures. Penn State falls squarely in the middle of the league. The Nittany Lions lost some contributors, but nothing insurmountable. All told, Penn State lost Rasir Bolton, Daniil Kasatkin, Josh Reaves, and Deivis Zemgulis.

Reaves is certainly the most significant departure from the group. He started every game for the Nittany Lions last season and played 81.5 percent of the team’s minutes. Reaves was a defensive star and became a pretty reliable shooter from three-point range as well. He was a great complimentary piece for a team that had other offensive playmakers.

The other notable departure was Bolton, who was only a freshman last season but showed some encouraging signs. During the season, Bolton was one of the team’s more productive offensive players and saw his minutes rise during the team’s late season run. He opted to enter the transfer portal and moved to Iowa State.

It’s hard to get worked up over the final two departures in Kasatkin and Zemgulis. Neither played any significant minutes and Kasatkin played a grand total of eight minutes. All told, Penn State is looking at replacing two starters, which is about what one would expect in any given season of college basketball.

3. New Additions

This season, the Nittany Lions will be adding three new recruits, a transfer, and a walk-on. The recruits are Patrick Kelly, Seth Lundy, and Abdou Tsimbila. Kelly and Lundy are listed as small forwards and Tsimbila as a center. All three are rated as three-star prospects by 247Sports.

The recruit receiving the most attention is Lundy, who comes out of the Philly area and is a top 220 prospect. He’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 195 pounds and figures to be in the mix for minutes during his freshman season. Kelly and Tsimbilia arrive as less highly regarded prospects, but have a shot to develop into reliable backups this year.

Curtis Jones is the transfer, who arrives from Oklahoma State. He is a graduate transfer and will be eligible immediately this season. Jones played reserve minutes for the Cowboys last season and is listed at 6-foot-4 and 185 pounds. One would expect that he will get a shot to replace Reaves in the starting lineup. The walk-on addition is Stephen Beattie, who should be able to help the team add depth in the backcourt.

This is a solid group of newcomers. It’s not a group that will turn a lot of heads nationally, but it should help Chambers build depth and fill an opening starting role in the lineup. And if one of the freshmen can hit the ground running, it has a chance to be really exciting.

4. Points of Optimism

If you watch sports talk shows or listen to sports radio, you’re eventually going to hear somebody say that teams “are what their records say they are.” And generally speaking, that isn’t horrible logic. The goal is to win games. If you win more games, you’re a better team and the inverse is true as well. It’s not exactly a revolutionary concept.

However, last year’s Penn State team doesn’t fit cleanly into this proposition. The Nittany Lions certainly weren’t a great team, but it’s also hard to say this was a bad unit. Penn State showed tremendous potential, winning 7 of its final 10 regular season games and also upsetting Virginia Tech earlier in the season. And Penn State finished 43rd on KenPom, higher than teams like Ohio State, Minnesota, and Washington. All three of those teams made and won games in the NCAA Tournament.

All this goes toward the point that Penn State probably wasn’t as bad as its record indicated last season. That doesn’t mean much for last season, but it should encourage fans for this time around. When we project a team coming into a new season, we often start with how they performed the year prior. Penn State isn’t starting from a 14-18 level, it’s much closer to an NIT level, at least from a play-by-play basis. Keep up the level of play the team showed late in the season and the team could achieve some remarkable things.

Penn State also has some potential star power on this team. Stevens was a monster last year and is back for his senior season. He’s not Cassius Winston, but he’s certainly in the discussion with anybody else in the league. Watkins was also a productive big man and is back for another go around with the Nittany Lions. Chambers just has to find a player or two to compliment these two.

And with a bunch of young players returning like Myles Dread and Jamari Wheeler, it’s not unreasonable to think Penn State sees a lot of growth elsewhere on the roster. That’s ultimately where this season probably lives or dies. The good news is that the potential for growth is there.

5. Team Concerns

Let’s put it out on the table before we get any further. Few out there have been more critical than me of Chambers over the last few years. I don’t have anything personally against the guy. My issue is simply that he hasn’t delivered since taking over at Penn State. This might not be Duke or North Carolina, but the program should still have goals and Chambers hasn’t achieved anything notable in his eight years at the helm.

I bring that up here because it’s my biggest concern about Penn State heading into this season. Chambers has never reached the NCAAs since taking over at Penn State, despite having eight prior opportunities. The past alone doesn’t predict the future, but it sure makes it harder to predict that this is “the year” for the Nittany Lions. We’ve seen this story before and it’s hard to see the ending being much different this time around.

And perhaps even more troubling is the fact that this isn’t even the most talented roster (at least on paper) Chambers has had at Penn State. If he couldn’t get the job done with better pieces, why would we think he can with less? It’s hard to go out on a limb and predict Penn State to get the job done when we’ve seen things fail so miserably before.

Penn State also has some major roster questions as well. Stevens and Watkins should form a dynamite frontcourt group, but how does the backcourt shake out? Jones probably locks down a starting spot, but Dread and Wheeler were just so-so last year. And the team’s late season run was associated in large part with Bolton getting significant minutes. He’s now transferred out. Can this group take a step forward? Because if not, Penn State’s going to have a really hard time achieving its season goals.

6. Top Player

This section really doesn’t take much thought. Stevens is undeniably Penn State’s best player coming into this season. He was a machine last year and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last March. There’s little reason to think he will take a step back this time around.

If anybody is going to push Stevens for his distinction as the best player on this team, it will probably be Watkins. He has the potential to be a monster on the defensive side of the court and a great player down low. Jones is also a wildcard after transferring in from Oklahoma State. With that said, expect it to be Stevens again.

7. 2019-’20 Schedule Breakdown

  • 10/27 - Delaware (Ex.)
  • 11/5 - Maryland Eastern Shore
  • 11/9 - Wagner College
  • 11/14 - at Georgetown
  • 11/19 - Bucknell
  • 11/23 - Yale
  • 11/27 - Ole Miss (Brooklyn, NY)
  • 11/29 - Oklahoma State/Syracuse (Brooklyn, NY)
  • 12/4 - Wake Forest
  • 12/7 - at Ohio State
  • 12/10 - Maryland
  • 12/14 - Alabama
  • 12/20 - Central Connecticut State University
  • 12/29 - Cornell
  • 1/4 - Iowa (Philadelphia, PA)
  • 1/7 - at Rutgers
  • 1/11 - Wisconsin
  • 1/15 - at Minnesota
  • 1/18 - Ohio State
  • 1/22 - at Michigan
  • 1/29 - Indiana
  • 2/1 - at Nebraska
  • 2/4 - at Michigan State
  • 2/8 - Minnesota
  • 2/11 - at Purdue
  • 2/15 - Northwestern
  • 2/18 - Illinois
  • 2/23 - at Indiana
  • 2/26 - Rutgers
  • 2/29 - at Iowa
  • 3/3 - Michigan State
  • 3/7 - at Northwestern

This figures to be a pretty fun schedule for the Nittany Lions heading into this season. This isn’t a loaded slate, but has more than its fair share of intriguing matchups. Penn State also has a handful of games where it has a chance to pickup marquee victories in non-conference play. That will be vital if this team wants to achieve its goals.

Non-conference play is highlighted by the games against Alabama and Wake Forest at home, the road trip to Georgetown, and the games in Brooklyn against Ole Miss and either Oklahoma State or Syracuse. Interesting, Penn State figures to be favored in just about all of those games. And that’s great news for this slate. All of these games look winnable on paper. If Penn State can take care of business, it could enter Big Ten play with plenty of momentum for the first time in years.

We generally know what to expect out of Big Ten play with the expanded 20-game slate, but there are a few interesting twists here for the Nittany Lions. For instance, look at the team’s opening slate:

  • 12/7 - at Ohio State
  • 12/10 - Maryland
  • 1/4 - Iowa (Philadelphia, PA)
  • 1/7 - at Rutgers
  • 1/11 - Wisconsin
  • 1/15 - at Minnesota
  • 1/18 - Ohio State
  • 1/22 - at Michigan

Seven of those eight games come against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season and the lone exception is a road trip to Rutgers. That game would have been slotted as a win in past years, but the Scarlet Knights figure to be improved this time around. Penn State is actually an underdog in that game at the moment per KenPom.

If Penn State can survive that opening slate, things look pretty hopeful. Upset somebody at home and the Nittany Lions should have a reasonable shot at finishing Big Ten play with a conference record around .500. That should be good enough to make the postseason, assuming non-conference play doesn’t go off the rails.

The wins are there for the taking this season for the Nittany Lions. The question is whether Penn State blows a game or two like the team has done in previous campaigns. That will be the challenge in the next few months.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Jamari Wheeler (Jr.) - 80%
  • SG: Curtis Jones (Sr.) - 55%
  • SF: Myles Dread (So.) - 80%
  • PF: Lamar Stevens (Sr.) - 95%
  • C: Mike Watkins (Rs. Sr.) - 75%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

It’s rare to see a team coming off a 14-18 season have so much stability in its lineup entering a season. Penn State certainly has some questions after losing players like Bolton and Reaves, but the Nittany Lions have plenty of solid options entering this season. And the bench should also put some pressure on these starters in the months to come.

In the backcourt, Wheeler and Dread seem like locks to start after playing so many minutes last time around. Even with some newcomers arriving, it seems unlikely that either of these two will be pushed out of the starting lineup. The real question, as noted above, is really about how much Wheeler and Dread can improve.

Penn State figures to have a handful of options to play alongside Wheeler and Dread at the three. It seems likely the team will go small. Jones seems like the best bet to start, assuming he gets approval for his transfer waiver. Myreon Jones started during the exhibition (likely in place of Jones) and should be the other potential option. It’s also safe to assume that these players will rotate at the two and three spots with Dread.

The frontcourt figures to be Stevens and Watkins. Both are seniors and have proven themselves as capable Big Ten players. Notably, John Harrar started during the exhibition last Sunday. However, Watkins outplayed him during the game and it seems like a reasonable guess that Watkins will get the role when things matter. It is encouraging to see the team developing another frontcourt option though. Freshmen Patrick Kelly and Seth Lundy should be reserves at the three and four spots if need be.

Penn State figures to have a pretty solid starting lineup heading into this season. Stevens and Watkins should provide the star power and the team has returning starters elsewhere and developing depth around them. If the Nittany Lions can just find a guard or two to get things rolling, watch out.

9. Team Perspective From Bryan Steedman

While Penn State has shown some flashes under Pat Chambers, the team has only had two winning seasons in eight seasons. There was some optimism after winning the NIT in 2018, but that quickly faded as the Nittany Lions lost their first ten conference games.

The team did make a splash to close the regular season, going 7-3 over the last ten games and knocking off Michigan and Maryland at home. With Lamar Stevens returning after testing the NBA waters it’s safe to say that Chambers will need to see the team build off of their late season success if he wants to quiet the talk about him being on the hot seat. Losing Rasir Bolton (who transferred after his freshman season) and Josh Reaves doesn’t help things and the team will hope that forward Mike Watkins can stay on the court more this season.

With Stevens and Watkins the Nittany Lions have a core that could be more competitive than expected. The problem is the team struggled heavily on offense last season and there’s no guarantee they’ll see much of an improvement this season.

If Penn State starts slow again this season it could be another long winter for the Nittany Lions. And if that happens the bigger question will be if Chambers will hold onto his job for another year. The administration has support Chambers and his staff for quite some time but Penn State has had issues keeping fans/students interested in the program. With one NCAA Tournament appearance in 18 seasons that isn’t much of a surprise, but it’ll be interesting to see if the school will hold the status quo if the team disappoints once again.

10. Overall Season Outlook

There’s a lot to like about this Penn State team heading into this season. The Nittany Lions were better than their record last year, have proven players in the frontcourt, and also have the potential for massive growth elsewhere. When you evaluate teams that could be on the rise, those are many of the factors you look for.

But for better or worse, this is Penn State and Pat Chambers. This isn’t the first time things have looked solid on paper entering a season and the Nittany Lions have failed to live up to the hype when it counted most. And this group isn’t nearly as talented as the Penn State team that had Tony Carr a few years back, particularly in the backcourt. It’s hard to envision how Chambers is going to accomplish more with less.

With all that said, Penn State still has some talent and plenty of potential. KenPom has the Nittany Lions rated 43rd nationally heading into this season. If that holds, it’s a rating that’s good enough to get this team into the NCAAs. Teams don’t win based on statistical profiles, but it’s certainly an encouraging sign.

So, can Chambers get the job done? We will have to wait and see. This team should be able to hang with the big boys in the Big Ten, but I see too many losses to be in serious NCAA consideration at season’s end. As of now, I have Penn State ranked 10th in the league entering this season.

Big Ten Prediction: 10th Place

[Editor’s Note: Rasir Bolton was mistakenly mentioned in the article’s introduction. This reference has since been removed.]