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2020-’21 Penn State Nittany Lions Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Penn State Nittany Lions and what fans should expect from the program heading into the 2020-’21 season.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020-’21 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2020-’21 ‘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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Heartbreaking.

That’s probably the only word you can use to describe Penn State’s finish last season. After years of inconsistency, disappointing finishes, and frustration, last year’s Penn State squad and Pat Chambers finally put together a year to remember in State College. The team had star power, talent, and finally had a resume good enough to get it into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic had other thoughts.

And while there are certainly more serious things going on in society, you have to feel for Penn State and fans. It took years for Chambers to get a team this good and they didn’t even get to reap the benefits. Fans left March hoping things would be better next time around.

But the drama didn’t stop there. During the offseason, allegations surfaced regarding Chambers’ conduct as a head coach during the offseason and he was eventually forced out following an internal investigation. Assistant Jim Ferry was selected as the Interim Head Coach to replace Chambers after previously coaching at Duquesne.

Normally, I would add some commentary here about what to expect, but after the dramatic changes in State College over the last eight months, it’s hard to say. At least the team returns some nice pieces to work with. Jamari Wheeler and Myles Dread return in the backcourt, John Harrar returns upfront, and Penn State is adding four new recruits and a transfer. Fans will have to hope Ferry can keep things rolling.

So, let’s dive into this year’s Nittany Lions.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse’s season preview post for the Penn State Nittany Lions, make sure to check out the site’s podcast preview of the Nittany Lions, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Eliezer Moreta-Feliz of Black Shoe Diaries breaking down Penn State’s roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

1. 2019-’20 Season Performance

  • Record: 21-10 (11-9)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #26
  • NET Rating: #35
  • Postseason Appearance: N/A (Cancelled)

Let’s be clear about this. Last season’s Penn State squad was a special one. They started well, continued to perform during conference play, and did a great job of closing out games against quality opponents. And while Penn State fizzled out at the end of the regular season, we haven’t seen Penn State build a regular season resume like it did last season anytime in recent memory.

Just think about it this way. Last year’s Penn State hit 20 wins by February 15th. For most programs, that’s a solid figure, but nothing incredible. But for Penn State, that’s a major accomplishment. The Nittany Lions only had 11 previous seasons with 20 wins, and most of those included postseason victories. Last year’s Penn State hit that mark with a month of the regular season remaining and against a brutal slate (ranked 22nd nationally in strength of schedule). It was unprecedented success for State College.

Penn State also particularly stood out in games against quality opponents, which had previously plagued the Nittany Lions under Chambers. Penn State beat Alabama, Georgetown, Syracuse, and Yale during non-conference play and added nine (!!!) wins against top 50 teams in Big Ten play, highlighted by a massive road win against Michigan State in early February. Few teams ever go into East Lansing and walk out with a victory, but Penn State was able to get the job done.

The lone rough spots came late in the season. The Nittany Lions lost five of the team’s final six games of the season, including a brutal loss on the road against an underwhelming Northwestern squad. But even with the slide, Penn State still put together an impressive resume and one more than strong enough to earn an NCAA bid. Additionally, one has to wonder if these losses were a byproduct of the team’s early success. After all, it’s hard to stay hungry after you reach a goal, which Penn State had done here. All told, it was a great season for Chambers and his squad.

The highlights of the season came in the team’s early season wins over Georgetown and Syracuse and in conference play against Maryland, Michigan, and Michigan State. Conversely, the losses to Ole Miss and Northwestern stand out as rough spots.

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

2. Offseason Exits

Considering how well Penn State did last season, it’s no surprise the team got hit with some substantial roster attrition this offseason. The team is losing five players in Stephen Beattie, Grant Hazle, Curtis Jones, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins. While two of those five are relatively unremarkable losses, the other three made quite an impact for the Nittany Lions last season and won’t be easy to replace.

The biggest departure is Stevens. He was Penn State’s best player last season and dominated the team’s offseason production in the process. He played 77.7 percent of the team’s minutes and ate up an astonishing 30.3 percent of the team’s offensive possessions. Stevens finished the season averaging 17.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 2.2 assists per game. Those are really impressive numbers and don’t even begin to include his contributions off the court. He was a dynamic leader and was a big reason Penn State finally got over the NCAA hump last season.

On top of that, Jones and Watkins will also be noticeable departures. Watkins started 17 games last season and though Jones came off the bench, he played 17.6 minutes per game when he wasn’t injured. The two each added key contributions during the season as well. Watkins was a great rim protector on the defensive end, finishing 23rd nationally in block rate, and Jones grew into a quasi-starter by season’s end. He was a key reason Penn State knocked off teams like Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan in January, scoring double-digits in all three games. The final two departures in Beattie and Hazle combined to play a total of eight minutes last season. As such, neither should be a big loss on the floor.

These departures aren’t insurmountable, but they are certainly substantial. Replacing a player like Stevens is extraordinarily difficult and that doesn’t even include Jones and Watkins. Between the three, you’re talking about the team’s best player and three quasi-starters. Replacing these players will rely extensively on the team’s rising depth.

3. New Additions

This season, the Nittany Lions will be adding four new recruits and one transfer. The recruits are Caleb Dorsey, DJ Gordon, Dallion Johnson, and Abdou Tsimbila. According to 247Sports, all four recruits are three-star prospects. The site lists Gordon and Johnson as shooting guard, Dorsey as a small forward, and Tsimbila as a center. The transfer is Sam Sessoms from Binghamton.

None of the three incoming recruits really stand out from one another, at least on paper. All three are rated outside the top 300 nationally and relatedly arrive with limited expectations for this season. This is very much a “wait and see” type of class. Gordon has impressive size for the backcourt at 6-foot-5 and 170 pounds and is a player that could really grow into a facilitating two guard. He projects as an excellent defender and could be dangerous in transition. Dorsey and Johnson are players that could help the bench in year one and grow from there.

Perhaps the most surprising addition in the class was Tsimbila, who was added late after JUCO transfer Valdir Manuel decommitted. Tsimbila comes out of Hagerstown, Maryland and is rated as a three-star prospect by 247Sports. He’s extremely raw offensively, but has athleticism and can block shots. In a lot of ways, he could be similar to Watkins. And that’s welcome news with what the team is losing in the frontcourt.

The transfer addition is Sessoms from Binghamton. He recently received a waiver from the NCAA and will be eligible to play this season. Here’s what I wrote about him when he first committed to the Nittany Lions:

During his two seasons with Binghamton, Sessoms played in 62 games and averaged 19.4 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game in his final year with the Bearcats. And while Binghamton struggled on the court the last two years, the team did show some improvement last year.

Sessoms will now join a Penn State roster figuring to be in a transitional year. The Nittany Lions performed well this season, but will be losing key players like Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins. It’s anyone’s guess how things will look without them in the fold. We don’t know yet whether Sessoms will be able to play next season. He has two years of eligibility remaining.

And while nobody knows what Sessoms will end up doing this season for Penn State, it seems likely he will have a shot at earning a starting role. He’s a versatile player that can contribute in a variety of different ways. Either way, fans have to be excited about picking up a player like this.

All told, Penn State isn’t adding much in terms of instant impact additions. Sessoms will get some time in the backcourt and the freshmen will get opportunities. However, this is a class that will largely contribute in the years ahead.

4. Points of Optimism

With so much transition this offseason, it’s hard to get a specific feel on how Penn State will look next season. Fans are going to see a lot of new faces and players contributing in different roles than in years past. Stevens had one of the highest usage rates in the league last season and is now gone. As such, you’re going to expect things to change without him.

But putting that aside, we do have some things to be encouraged about with Penn State heading into next season. To start, the backcourt should be one of the better units in the Big Ten and will provide stability for the team heading into next season. Dread and Wheeler both started over 20 games last season and there’s no reason to think that will change this time around. Both were relatively efficient when shooting the ball, Wheeler was an above-average passer, and Dread was really going at avoiding turnovers. Those are all skills Chambers can build around this season.

Penn State also has a number of available options to fill the other three starting roles. Seth Lundy is back after getting his feet wet as a freshman, John Harrar should provide a reliable option upfront, and Penn State is adding some promising new recruits and a transfer from Binghamton. None of those newcomers are sure-fire contributors, but the volume suggests someone is going to be decent. And if even one or two can play 10 to 20 minutes a game, Penn State’s going to have a much better shot at filling out its lineup.

We also can’t undersell what Penn State accomplished last season and the impact it could have on the program moving forward. Establishing a winning culture is something fans often overlook, but it’s crucial for long-term program sustainability. Guys need expectations and a commitment to winning to put in the work to succeed at the highest level. Losing Chambers could impact the transition, but you do have an assistant in charge. Perhaps he will be able to keep things rolling.

And while one season alone doesn’t guarantee future success, Penn State now has players who have contributed and won at a high level. If Penn State is going to overcome the loss of players like Stevens and Watkins, it’s going to be because of that culture change and mentality shift. And that’s something Nittany Lion fans have to be excited about heading into this season.

5. Points of Concern

This probably won’t come as a surprise to those who have read the four sections above, but Penn State lost a lot this offseason. In fact, the departures are undeniably the biggest obstacle the Nittany Lions will face this year. Replacing players like Stevens and Watkins is going to be tremendously difficult and will dictate whether this ends up being a successful season for the Nittany Lions at all.

And while most fans know how good Stevens and Watkins were last season, it’s important to put it in context here. Stevens was unquestionably the team’s best player last season and dominated things offensively, using 33.0 percent of team possessions when on the floor. That usage rate was the third-highest in Big Ten play last season and top 50 nationally. And while Watkins wasn’t as dominant, he was a fantastic shot blocker and rebounder and provided an instant boost when he was on the floor. And unfortunately, Penn State has nobody on the roster who can realistically replace their contributions.

Penn State is also losing other contributors as well. Jones is gone after playing key minutes as a transfer last season and the team is also losing Beattie and Hazle. The latter two didn’t contribute much on the court, but they were players involved in Penn State’s rebuild and certainly provided a boost to the roster off the court as well. All of this adds into the significant offseason transition.

It’s also important to highlight that fans may have already gotten a glimpse of what Penn State might look like without some of these players. For example, Jones missed six games last season and Penn State went 2-4 in those matchups, including the three losses to close the season. Watkins also saw limited playing time in the team’s underwhelming 1-5 finish to the regular season. And while that isn’t a perfect comparison to how things would look next season, it’s not encouraging. Penn State will have to learn to play without those guys.

Chambers’ departure is also clearly a concern. The issues related to his exit go beyond basketball, but changing coaches halfway through an offseason when the team is losing so much talent from last year is a tricky spot. And even if Ferry can steer the ship in the short-term, how is he going to do when things get tough in Big Ten play? It’s a huge question.

Finally, the frontcourt looks like a big question mark. Not only because Stevens and Watkins are gone, but because the other players are relatively unproven. It’s a lot of guys who have shown signs, just not enough to make us fully confident. For instance, Harrar was a solid player in his role last season and Lundy has potential. However, can they do it for 25 or more minutes a game? We’ll have to wait and see.

These issues aren’t insurmountable. Penn State has talented pieces that can fill the void. We’re just going to have to wait and see on some of them.

6. Top Player

Heading into last season, there wasn’t much debate about Penn State’s best player. It was Stevens and nobody else was a close second. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

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.

With all three of the players mentioned above now gone, there’s going to be a big void for someone to fill. And unfortunately for Nittany Lion fans, there isn’t an obvious pick. Dread and Wheeler are probably the most logical selections after last season, but neither is exactly a sure-fire selection. Both played less than 70 percent of Penn State’s minutes last season and Wheeler finished with an offensive rating under 100. Those are not usually things you see out of guys playing at an All-Big Ten level.

To me, if Penn State is going to have another player in the same vein as players like Tim Frazier, Tony Carr, and Stevens, it’s going to be a wildcard. I would look toward players like Lundy and the incoming freshmen. None of them are proven, but they have some high ceilings. Keep an eye on Abdou Tsimbila and Dallion Johnson. It should be an interesting storyline to follow.

7. 2020-’21 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/25 - Drexel
  • 11/28 - VMI
  • 12/2 - VCU
  • 12/6 - Seton Hall
  • 12/8 - at Virginia Tech
  • 12/13 - at Michigan
  • 12/23 - Illinois
  • 12/30 - at Indiana
  • 1/3 - Wisconsin
  • 1/6 - at Ohio State
  • 1/9 - Michigan
  • 1/12 - Rutgers
  • 1/17 - at Purdue
  • 1/20 - at Illinois
  • 1/23 - Northwestern
  • 1/30 - at Nebraska
  • 2/2 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/5 - Maryland
  • 2/9 - at Michigan State
  • 2/14 - Nebraska
  • 2/18 - Ohio State
  • 2/21 - at Iowa
  • 2/26 - Purdue
  • 3/3 - Minnesota
  • 3/7 - at Maryland

From any objective perspective, this is going to be a really challenging slate. Penn State figures to be an underdog in the vast majority of its games this season, including virtually every game in Big Ten play. In fact, KenPom’s preseason ratings only favor the Nittany Lions in the following games:

  • 11/25 - Drexel
  • 11/28 - VMI
  • 12/2 - VCU
  • 12/6 - Seton Hall
  • 1/23 - Northwestern
  • 1/30 - at Nebraska
  • 2/14 - Nebraska

Even if Penn State has other winnable games, being an underdog in well in nearly 70 percent of the team’s games isn’t an encouraging stat. There’s going to be a lot of pressure to avoid slides and bounce back after losses. Otherwise, this is the kind of schedule that could end up devouring anything but a great team.

If there is a key stretch to the season after non-conference play ends, it has to be the following:

  • 1/9 - Michigan
  • 1/12 - Rutgers
  • 1/17 - at Purdue
  • 1/20 - at Illinois
  • 1/23 - Northwestern
  • 1/30 - at Nebraska

Penn State figures to be an underdog in four of those games, but the matchups against Michigan and Rutgers look winnable. If the Nittany Lions are going to be a factor in the Big Ten, that feels like a stretch where the team has to do some damage. All told, expect a major challenge to get to .500 this season.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Jamari Wheeler (Sr.) - 90%
  • SG: Myreon Jones (Jr.) - 90%
  • SF: Myles Dread (Jr.) - 75%
  • PF: Seth Lundy (So) - 60%
  • C: John Harrar (Sr.) - 90%

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

Despite losing so many key contributors from last season, Penn State is actually in pretty good position for its starting lineup heading into this season. Four of the spots look pretty locked down heading into this season and there are a handful of other experienced options to fill the last spot in the lineup. The team’s newcomers should also provide some useful depth should any of the starters go down.

In the backcourt, expect Jamari Wheeler to lock down one of the starting spots. He started 31 games last season and averaged 25.9 minutes per game. He was primarily a pass-first guard and fans will hope he can expand his offensive game this season. He only took 7.7 percent of the team’s shots while on the court last season, which was easily the lowest on Penn State’s roster last season.

There are a few options to start alongside Wheeler. Myles Dread seems like a fairly safe bet to start, but he could play at the two or three depending on how others perform. Izaiah Brockington and Myreon Jones will both be in the mix after playing off the bench last season, freshmen Caleb Dorsey and DJ Gordon could make some noise, and forward Seth Lundy could play some time on the wing as well. Jones seems like the safest bet for now, but expect several players to rotate to fill those minutes.

Upfront, Lundy will likely lock down the four spot and Harrar should start at center. Both are experienced players that saw substantial playing time last season. The biggest challenge for Lundy will be whether he can sustain his efficient play (116.2 offensive rating) with more playing time. Likewise, Harrar showed a lot of consistency, but needs to expand his role offensively. He had a great offensive rating of 123.9, but only took 9.1 percent of the team’s shots when on the floor. There’s a lot of room for growth for these two and Penn State moving forward. Expect Dorsey and Abdou Tsimbila to provide valuable depth for the team here.

There are two ways to look at this lineup. On the one hand, it’s experienced and has a lot of players that know their roles. That’s something that shouldn’t be overlooked in college basketball. But on the other hand, there’s no clear stars in this group. There are a lot of Robin’s, but no Batman. And based on what we know about Big Ten and college basketball, that’s not an encouraging sign. Somebody will need to take a step forward for this team to achieve its goals.

9. Outside Perspective From Eliezer Moreta-Feliz of Black Shoe Diaries.

““A team that needed all the continuity it could afford got a major blow right before the season starts, in the form of losing its head coach. Two recruits already decommitted as a result, and while it may be too late for players already in the program, don’t be surprised if some announcements come out in the first few weeks of the season based on who’s getting playing time.

The biggest question mark going into the season is ‘how will this affect the team?’ If they let the changes affect them, then we’re in for a long season. The hope is that the team is still mentally invested, and this year is a good transition year into a new coaching regime.

It’s not all bad news, however. Penn State does return four starters from last season, and if they can figure out how to replace Lamar Steven’s production, this team should still be able to compete. Jim Ferry’s offenses at Duquesne and LIU are suited for the personnel, so don’t be surprised if the Nittany Lions run a more uptempo offense than they had in the past. Last, but not least, if the team still has the feeling of ‘unfinished business’ from a year ago, a middle of the pack finish it not totally out of the question.” - Eliezer Moreta-Feliz.

10. Overall Season Outlook

With so many dramatic changes since last season, it’s hard to tell what Penn State is going to look like this season. The team is losing its best player, a few other key contributors, and its long-time head coach. And all of that transition happens when the world’s been turned upside down. There’s little debating this season could go a variety of different ways.

The good news is there are some solid returning pieces. Wheeler and Dread should make a formidable backcourt and the team has plenty of other experienced options like Jones and Harrar elsewhere. Plus, if some of the newcomers are ready to play, Penn State could field a pretty balanced lineup this season.

However, with so much walking out the door, it’s hard to feel too optimistic. And when you add in Chambers’ surprising departure and an absolutely brutal schedule, things get even more concerning. Expect a team who will surprise here and there and compete regularly, but one that falls short more often than fans would prefer.

Big Ten Prediction: 12th Place