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2021-’22 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 2021-’22 season.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Days Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021-’22 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2021-’22 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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After nearly a decade as head coach, Pat Chambers and the program finally split ways last offseason. The reasons for the departure are well known, relating to allegations of racially insensitive remarks made by Chambers. The sudden split led to a season with interim head coach Jim Ferry at the helm. Ultimately, the program opted not to elevate Ferry to head coach.

On March 15, 2021, Micah Shrewsberry was hired as Penn State’s man in charge. This is his first Division I head coaching position after spending the last decade with Purdue and the Boston Celtics as an assistant coach. He’s just 45 years old and is expected to bring newfound excitement to the program, particularly on the recruiting trail.

Unfortunately, Shrewsberry inherits a thin and flawed roster. The team returns a few key pieces like Myles Dread, Seth Lundy, and John Harrar, but there isn’t much else there, or at least anything that’s proven. Penn State will enter the season with massive question marks and few certainties.

So, what can Penn State do in Shrewsberry’s first season? Let’s take a look.

1. 2020-’21 Season Performance

  • Record: 11-14 (7-12)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #40
  • NET Rating: #44
  • Postseason Appearance: None

While Penn State wasn’t terrible last season, it also wasn’t great. The Nittany Lions routinely struggled against quality competition and blew a handful of games down the stretch. The team also suffered from an abbreviated slate due to COVID-19 related cancellations, playing only 23 regular season games. For comparison, Iowa played 27 regular season games. There’s little telling what an extra four games could have done to Penn State’s resume.

Like many of the other “lower tier” Big Ten teams last season, Penn State was largely undone by a loaded slate. The Nittany Lions finished first nationally in KenPom’s strength of schedule metrics and 21 of the team’s 25 games came against opponents ranked 54th or better on KenPom. For perspective, teams like Georgetown, Michigan State, and Wichita State made the NCAA Tournament outside the top 60. Nearly every game was an NCAA level opponent.

And, perhaps even worse, those struggles started early with one of Penn State’s most difficult stretches coming shortly after the season began. The Nittany Lions got Michigan on the road, Illinois twice, and Indiana and Purdue on the road in five games. Unsurprisingly, Penn State lost all five games and found itself sitting at 3-6 as a result. It took the air out of the sails on the team’s season and Ferry’s tenure as head coach. The team scored some nice wins later in the year, but things largely felt over after that five-game stretch.

Highlights of the season included the non-conference wins over VCU and Virginia Tech, the wins over Maryland and Wisconsin in Big Ten play, and the victory over Nebraska to open things up in the Big Ten Tournament. Low points included the loss to Seton Hall, the five-game losing streak described above, and tough losses to Michigan State and Nebraska later in the season.

Individual statistical leaders were John Harrar, Myreon Jones, Seth Lundy, and Jamari Wheeler. Harrar led the team in rebounds and was tied for total win shares. Jones led the team in points and was tied in total win shares. Lundy led the team in blocks. Wheeler led the team in minutes, assists, and steals.

2. Offseason Exits

The Nittany Lions got hit pretty hard with attrition this offseason. The team lost Izaiah Brockington, Trent Buttrick, DJ Gordon, Myreon Jones, Patrick Kelly, Kyle McCloskey, Taylor Nussbaum, Abdou Tsimbila, and Jamari Wheeler. That’s three starters and a handful of the team’s key reserves.

The most significant departures are Brockington, Jones, and Wheeler. These three started more than 24 games last season and led the team in total minutes. They also dominated the team’s offensive production. Jones and Brockington led the roster in field goal attempts and Wheeler was the team’s best and most consistent facilitator. In many ways, Penn State’s offense is walking out the door with these three.

Penn State also lost one of its top reserve options in Sessoms as well. Buttrick finished eighth on the team in total minutes and Buttrick played behind Harrar upfront. Tsimbila also saw limited time as the team’s third big.

The final departures are Gordon, Kelly, McCloskey, and Nussbaum. None of these are notable as the four combined for less than 100 minutes all season. Still, losing four players on top of the departures outlined above hits even harder. There’s simply no way to describe Penn State’s attrition other than gutting.

3. New Additions

This season, the Nittany Lions will be adding one new recruit, three transfers, and three walk-ons. The recruit is Jevonnie Scott, who arrives from South Plains College and is listed at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds. 247Sports identifies Scott as a power forward. Dan Conlan, Ishaan Jagiasi, and Irekefe Oweh join the team as walk-ons.

Scott was a consistent contributor for South Plains before his arrival at Penn State, averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. He’s originally out of Toronto and has decent size. Unfortunately, questions remain about Scott’s availability. Fans will hope he can figure things out and get on the court in the coming weeks.

The transfers are Jaheam Cornwall, Greg Lee, Jalen Pickett, and Jalanni White. Cornwall arrives from Gardner-Webb, Lee arrives from Western Michigan, Pickett from Siena, and White from Canisius. Cornwall and Pickett should contribute in the backcourt, White on the wing, and Lee upfront.

Here is what we wrote about Cornwall and Pickett when they committed:

Cornwall is listed at 6-foot-0 and 175 pounds and played in 120 games at Gardner-Webb before transferring to Penn State. He made the All-Big South team last season and averaged an impressive 14.1 points, 3.8 assists, and 3.1 rebounds per game while hitting 40.8 percent from three-point range.

Pickett is also a significant addition. He’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 202 pounds and averaged 12.9 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game for Siena last season. He was the MAAC Player of the Year in the 2019-’20 season, a three-time All-MAAC member, and was widely regarded as one of the best transfers available this offseason.

And what we wrote about Lee:

Lee is listed at 6-foot-9 and 210 pounds by 247Sports and played last season at Western Michigan after spending three years at Cal State Bakersfield. He played in a total of 21 games for the Broncos last season and averaged 27.0 minutes, 13.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game. He was a monster on the boards and dominated Western Michigan’s offensive usage last season.

With John Harrar already returning for the Nittany Lions next year, adding a piece like Greg Lee should improve the depth chart considerably. Penn State will now have two experienced and valuable big men to deploy next season and some capability of playing them both on the floor together when necessary. The roster still has some serious holes, but this should certainly fix at least the frontcourt.

And White:

White played the past four seasons for Canisius, starting 51 of the 98 games he played in (including all 11 games he played in a shortened season last year). The 6’8” forward averaged 5.1 points and 2.6 rebounds per game throughout his career in just under 16 minutes an outing. He’s also a career 50.5% shooter, even though he struggled in most statistical categories in his senior season.

The size White brings to the Nittany Lions is much needed as they only have a handful of players that measure in at 6’7” or taller. Penn State still only has 11 scholarship players as of right now so there’s a possibility they could look to pick up some more depth before the season. While there’s a decent chance that Micah Shrewsberry’s debut season will include a pretty thin roster, White brings some experience and height that should add a bit of depth to the frontcourt.

All four of these transfers are going to get a shot to play. The question is whether any of them can elevate their games to the next level. It’s going to take that for Penn State to have a special season.

4. Points of Optimism

Expectations for Penn State won’t be particularly high this season, but fans do have some reasons to be optimistic. In particular, the frontcourt looks like a strength and the energy of a new coaching staff could work wonders.

Perhaps the most exciting thing for the Nittany Lions this season was how many of the team’s key contributors from last season decided to return to campus. At one point, it looked like the roster was going to undergo a complete overhaul. However, Shrewsberry was able to keep enough guys bought in to keep the core intact. These guys also return from a team better than some believe, as the team’s overall marks were skewed by a ridiculously tough schedule.

The most notable returns are Dread, Harrar, and Lundy. All three started games last season and finished among the top six on the roster in minutes played. They were also key contributors the year before, when Penn State finished 21-10 overall and would have made the 2020 NCAA Tournament had it been played. All three know how to win, which is a huge thing to have as the program welcomes a new head coach.

The frontcourt also appears particularly strong. Harrar and Lundy return and the program welcomes Lee and Scott to campus as well. If the new additions can proven some quality depth, it could elevate this into one of the better frontcourts in the league.

The arrival of Shrewsberry should also come with plenty of excitement. While he’s unproven as a head coach, there’s also a new energy in the building when a transition occurs. Don’t be surprised if some new faces show up or some old faces perform better under a new system. It should be an exciting time.

5. Points of Concern

Questions, questions, and more questions. If we were boiling down this preview to three words, it would be the three above. Penn State may return some key pieces from last season, but this roster and coaching staff arrive with questions galore. While this might not be an overhaul, there are some major renovations going on.

From a roster perspective, the team’s biggest concern has to be the backcourt. The team lost Wheeler, Jones, and Brockington this offseason, leaving the roster devoid of proven guards. Shrewsberry went out and got Cornwall and Pickett, but neither exactly projects to be an All-Big Ten guard this year. Even if one outperforms expectations, Penn State will still be looking for an answer at a starting spot. It’s just not a great position.

We also have to wonder about how much players like Harrar and Lundy can progress upfront. Each has shown himself to be a solid player in the Big Ten, but being a decent player and being a star contributor are two different things. And with the departures of players like Wheeler and Jones, Penn State needs players to elevate. Most simply stated, the frontcourt looks solid, but we don’t know if it can be great.

Of course, these roster questions also have to be evaluated in light of a new (and unproven) coaching staff. We really don’t know much about Shrewsberry’s potential as a head coach. He has a solid background, but it’s not like this is a proven coach arriving with a loaded roster. There’s a chance this thing could go off the rails. We just don’t know.

6. Top Player

Penn State enters this season without a clearly designated top player on its roster. Dread, Harrar, and Lundy are the most proven, but none of the three are exactly established superstars. Dread seems to have the most upside, but he’s also dealing with an injury concern right now, though Shrewsberry claims it’s nothing serious.

Outside of those three, there’s a lot of uncertainty. The four transfers are going to get an opportunity, but all four have their work cut out. Scott also seems like he’s still going to have to jump through a few hoops to play. All told, there’s really no telling how this will shake out. Penn State’s roster abounds with question marks.

7. 2021-’22 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/10 - Youngstown State
  • 11/15 - at Massachusetts
  • 11/18 - St. Francis (Brooklyn)
  • 11/22 - Cornell
  • 11/26 - LSU (Niceville, FL)
  • 11/27 - Oregon State/Wake Forest (Niceville, FL)
  • 12/1 - Miami (FL)
  • 12/5 - Ohio State
  • 12/8 - Wagner
  • 12/11 - at Michigan State
  • 12/18 - at VCU
  • 12/22 - Quinnipiac
  • 12/29 - Delaware State
  • 1/2 - Indiana
  • 1/5 - at Northwestern
  • 1/8 - Purdue
  • 1/11 - Rutgers
  • 1/16 - at Ohio State
  • 1/19 - Minnesota
  • 1/22 - at Iowa
  • 1/26 - at Indiana
  • 1/31 - Iowa
  • 2/5 - at Wisconsin
  • 2/8 - Michigan
  • 2/12 - at Minnesota
  • 2/15 - Michigan State
  • 2/21 - at Maryland
  • 2/25 - Northwestern
  • 2/28 - Nebraska
  • 3/3 - at Illinois
  • 3/6 - at Rutgers

This should be a fun slate for Penn state this season. The non-conference slate has just enough to keep fans interested and Big Ten play is about what you would expect. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the slate is here:

  • 11/26 - LSU (Niceville, FL)
  • 11/27 - Oregon State/Wake Forest (Niceville, FL)
  • 12/1 - Miami (FL)
  • 12/5 - Ohio State
  • 12/8 - Wagner
  • 12/11 - at Michigan State
  • 12/18 - at VCU

You get four marquee non-conference games and two key Big Ten games in a matter of weeks. If Penn State can survive that run, the team could really get some momentum going into the heart of Big Ten play. That road game at VCU also looks intriguing. It’s rare to see a Big Ten team play a road game like that, so it should be a heck of an environment.

8. Projected Starting Lineup

  • PG: Sam Sessoms (Sr.) - 60%
  • SG: Jaheam Cornwall (Rs Sr.) - 51%
  • SF: Myles Dread (Sr.) - 95%
  • PF: Seth Lundy (Jr.) - 90%
  • C: John Harrar (Rs. Sr.) - 95%

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

Based on the returning core from last season, we have a pretty good idea of how most of Penn State’s lineup will look this season. Three players look like locks to start. The question will be how things sort out in the backcourt. If Penn State can figure out things there, the team has some serious potential. We’ll have to wait and see.

As of now, the backcourt remains a mess. However, the most stable options appear to be Sam Sessoms and Cornwall. Both have senior status and plenty of minutes under their belt. Penn State would prefer to alternate the two at point guard, but that’s going to depend on who emerges alongside them. At this point, I’m penciling in Cornwall. He’s a great shooter and can likely hold his own at the two if needed. Expect to see players like Dallion Johnson and Pickett behind those two. Both will get a chance to play.

On the wing, things seem pretty straightforward. Dread and Lundy should lock down starting spots. The question is whether they can remain there or if they get pushed to different positions to help alleviate the backcourt issues. If they do, some other options here will be Jalanni White, Caleb Dorsey, and Scott.

Upfront, expect minutes to get split between Harrar and Lee. Both are capable and experienced big men. It would be surprising if they didn’t combine for 35 to 40 minutes a game. There is thin depth behind those two, so Penn State’s going to try and prevent having to rely on others too much.

9. Realistic Team Goals

As noted above, expectations for the Nittany Lions won’t be very high this year. This very much feels like a rebuilding year where Shrewsberry installs his system and builds for the years ahead. There’s a chance everything comes together, it’s just hard to see on paper.

Penn State’s main goals needs to be staying competitive, pulling off wins at home, and getting some momentum for the recruiting trail. If that happens, Penn State could really get things going for the future.

10. Overall Season Outlook

Changing head coaches is never easy. Installing a new system and putting together a roster is a challenging endeavor, especially when it’s done after a year spent under an interim head coach. Shrewsberry arrived with excitement but has a major challenge on his hands.

Penn State’s roster has enough to compete in the Big Ten. There’s some experience, talent, and enough new additions to make some noise. The key contributors should look similar to last year with Dread, Lundy, and Harrar.

Unfortunately, competing and being decent isn’t enough in a league as deep as the Big Ten. Expect some serious growing pains for Shrewsberry and his staff in year one. Barring someone really surprising, it could be a tough year.

Big Ten Prediction: 14th Place