The 2022-’23 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2022-’23 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.
It’s been a hectic few years for the Penn State Nittany Lions. The program’s literally seen the heights and depths of college basketball in a few years. In March of 2020, fans were on top of the world, expecting the team to make its first NCAA Tournament appearance under Pat Chambers. Instead, the world shut down and things have never really recovered since. Chambers was fired shortly thereafter for off court issues and the program has alternated head coaches ever since, with Micah Shrewsberry coming in before last season.
That all leads us to this fall, where Penn State will prepare for its first “normal” season since the eventually cancelled COVID campaign. And there are some genuine reasons for hope, highlighted by the team’s deep cast of returning characters and a few notable offseason additions that could really improve things, including a key four-star prospect.
Unfortunately, the season also comes with its fair share of challenges as well, highlighted by the loss of John Harrar and questions about how much the roster can grow in a single year. Much will also depend on a relatively uncertain group of newcomers.
So, can Penn State get the job done? Let’s take a look.
1. 2021-’22 Season Performance
- Record: 14-17 (7-13)
- KenPom Team Rating: #88
- NET Rating: #88
- Postseason Appearance: None
Last season was generally a pretty disappointing performance for the Nittany Lions. While Penn State showed a decent amount of fight and won more games than some of the critics anticipated, the team still fell flat on far too many occasions. Moreover, it finished with a losing record, couldn’t close out enough winnable games, and finished 22 spots lower on KenPom than where it began. Obviously, none of that’s encouraging.
And last season opened particularly rough, as Penn State fell to 5-5 and 0-2 in Big Ten play by early December and failed to beat a single top 100 KenPom team until upsetting Indiana in January. Some of the early losses came by small margins, but too many came by double-digits. In particular, an 81-56 loss against UMass in mid-November aged as horribly as it looked at the time. The losses would prevent any serious postseason hopes.
Fortunately for fans, Penn State bounced back as the season continued. The Nittany Lions went 3-1 to open January and eventually pulled off a few upsets against Iowa and Michigan State later on. However, Penn State was simply terrible on the road, going winless there with the exception of a win against Northwestern. Even if you’re great at home, it’s almost impossible to overcome road struggles like that, even with a late season run, which Penn State got in the Big Ten Tournament.
Highlights of the season included regular season wins over Iowa and Michigan State and the Big Ten Tournament run with wins over Minnesota and Ohio State. Low points included non-conference losses to UMass and Miami (FL), the regular season losses to Minnesota, Maryland, and Nebraska, and the loss against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament to end the season.
Individual statistical leaders were John Harrar, Seth Lundy, and Jalen Pickett. Harrar led the team in rebounds and total win shares. Lundy led the team in blocks. Pickett led the team in minutes, points, assists, and steals.
2. Offseason Exits
Penn State didn’t get hit too badly with offseason departures, but lost a handful of contributors. The team lost a total of seven players in Jaheam Cornwall, John Harrar, Greg Lee, Irekefe Oweh, Jevonnie Scott, Sam Sessoms, and Jalanni White. That’s arguably the team’s best player and a handful of bench contributors.
The most significant departure is Harrar. He was one of the more unusual stars you’ll see in the Big Ten, as an undersized big man. However, he finished with a really productive career and was one of the program’s better players in recent years. He was a monster on the boards and one of the Big Ten’s most efficient players last season, ranking in the top five in rebound percentage and effective field goal percentage. His loss will be really significant upfront.
The other significant departures are Cornwall, Lee, Sessoms, and White, with Sessoms being the most significant. Sessoms played more than half the minutes last season and was a reliable force from behind the arc. The other three provided useful depth during the season. All are replaceable, but the cumulative effect of their departures will certainly make things more challenging for Shrewsberry. None of the other departures will really be all that significant here, as none of them played any significant minutes.
Overall, losing Harrar is tough. He was a great player and carried the Nittany Lions in a number of games last season. However, losing one star contributor is relatively expected in today’s game. And losing just one is a pretty good sign for the next season.
3. New Additions
This season, the Nittany Lions will be adding five new recruits and three transfers. The recruits are Jameel Brown, Kanye Clary, Demetrius Lilley, Evan Mahaffey, and Kebba Njie. According to 247Sports, Njie is a four-star and the other four recruits are three-star prospects. Clary is listed as a point guard, Brown is listed as a combo guard, Mahaffey is listed as a small forward, and Lilley and Njie are listed as centers.
The recruit receiving the most attention is clearly Njie. He’s ranked 115th nationally and should have a clear path to playing time with Harrar’s departure. He can also fill some of the team’s same needs, as he’s also an undersized big at 6-foot-8. Expect him to emerge as the season goes on.
Brown and Clary are two others who are getting attention. They’re both projected to factor into the backcourt rotation and Brown could be one of the team’s new scoring threats. They also have a decent path to starting time, considering how much Penn State lost in the backcourt this offseason in Sessoms and Cornwall.
The incoming transfers are Andrew Funk, Michaell Henn, and Camren Wynter. Funk is a guard from Bucknell, Henn is a forward from Denver, and Wynter is a point guard from Drexel. The most significant appears to be Funk, who averaged 17.5 points per game at Bucknell last season and shot well from outside the arc. All three are graduate transfers and will see time this season.
All told, there’s a lot to like here. Penn State’s adding a deep recruiting class with a top 120 prospect on top of three graduate transfers who should be ready to play early. If Shrewsberry can find a way to balance the youth, inexperience, and unfamiliarity, there’s a lot to like here.
4. Points of Optimism
Penn State won’t get much hype heading into this season, but Nittany Lion fans have some reasons to believe the program can make progress this year. It starts with the team’s key returners and the substantial new additions, highlighted by the three transfers. The schedule also has some upside as well.
To start, Penn State returns some key contributors from last year’s group. Jalen Pickett returns in the backcourt, Myles Dread is back on the wing, and Seth Lundy is back upfront as well. All three were solid starters for the Nittany Lions last season and should give Gard solid footing to begin this season. It’s hard to see any of the three being significantly different than last year given their age, but it’s a nice place to start.
Penn State’s new additions could also improve the roster as well. Funk and Njie look like impact contributors and that’s not even to mention the six other additions, including two more grad transfers. If even half that group is ready to play, Penn State could be poised to take a huge step forward. It’s just going to come down to how ready this group is to contribute.
The team also has a more manageable schedule than some might believe. We’ll dive into it deeper later, but the Nittany Lions face a variety of beatable non-conference foes and avoided some of the tougher projected matchups in Big Ten play this season. That should also help boost the team’s hopes.
5. Points of Concern
Unfortunately, Penn State also has some serious concerns as well. The most significant come in the frontcourt, where the Nittany Lions are trying to replace a star in Harrar with few known options. While the program is adding depth there, most of it comes from true freshmen who will be completely unknowns this season. And while one position doesn’t make a team, it could really derail things here for Penn State. Shrewsberry needs to find a few players that can contribute upfront.
Frankly, Penn State’s roster overall still needs some serious work. Guys like Pickett and Dread look ready to play, but two respectable players on a roster isn’t exactly impressive for a league like the Big Ten. Penn State desperately needs to build its depth out from last season. There are pieces to make that happen, but the program enters this season with one of the weaker rosters in the league, at least on paper.
It’s also important to reiterate where Penn State is starting from. The Nittany Lions weren’t good last season. In fact, the team wasn’t even decent. It finished an underwhelming 88th on KenPom and nearly went winless on the road last season. Those aren’t numbers that are going to boost anyone’s hopes, particularly given the team is losing arguing its best player from that group as well.
And Shrewsberry isn’t exactly a proven coach, either. While many are hopeful about what he can bring to the Nittany Lions in the years ahead, this is his first head coaching gig at this level. We have no idea if he’s going to end up being a good head coach. And the Nittany Lions need an excellent head coach to convert this roster into wins this year.
6. Top Player
With Harrar’s departure, Penn State should have three players in the running for this designation in Pickett, Dread, and Lundy. All three come to the table with different skills, but should get their chances. Pickett is a flexible guy who should see time at multiple spots, Dread is a nice scorer, and Lundy has impressive athleticism and potential. It wouldn’t be shocking to see any of the three emerge into some type of All-Big Ten consideration.
Outside of those three, other potential contenders are Funk, Njie and the other new additions. Funk probably has the highest likelihood of being an immediate contributor given his incoming experience. However, this is a talented and deep group. A lot of these guys are going to get time and someone will likely emerge.
7. 2022-’23 Schedule Breakdown
- 11/7 - Winthrop
- 11/10 - Loyola (MD)
- 11/14 - Butler
- 11/17 - Furman (Charleston, SC)
- 11/18 - TBA (Charleston, SC)
- 11/20 - TBA (Charleston, SC)
- 11/25 - Lafayette
- 11/29 - at Clemson
- 12/7 - Michigan State
- 12/10 - at Illinois
- 12/18 - Canisius
- 12/22 - Quinnipiac
- 12/29 - Delaware State
- 1/1 - Iowa
- 1/4 - at Michigan
- 1/8 - Purdue (Philadelphia, PA)
- 1/11 - Indiana
- 1/17 - at Wisconsin
- 1/21 - Nebraska
- 1/24 - at Rutgers
- 1/29 - Michigan
- 2/1 - at Purdue
- 2/5 - at Nebraska
- 2/8 - Wisconsin
- 2/11 - at Maryland
- 2/14 - Illinois
- 2/18 - at Minnesota
- 2/23 - at Ohio State
- 2/26 - Rutgers
- 3/1 - at Northwestern
- 3/5 - Maryland
As noted above, Penn State’s schedule projects as a decent draw this year. The team gets its fair number of challenges, but there are wins there if the Nittany Lions can take care of business. Many of the non-conference games look manageable and Penn State avoided some of the toughest potential conference games.
Non-conference play will largely come down to the game against Butler, the Charleston Classic, and the team’s road trip to Clemson. All three project as challenges, though none seem to be overwhelming on their face. If Penn State shows up and is improved, there are wins there for the taking.
Of course, Big Ten play will have its fair amount of challenges. Penn State avoided a double-play against Indiana and Michigan State and avoided road trips to Bloomington or East Lansing. However, the team did get double-plays against Illinois, Michigan, and Purdue. That’s not going to be easy.
Perhaps the most interesting stretch comes in January, with the following slate with KenPom odds noted alongside:
- 1/8 - Purdue (Philadelphia, PA) (53%)
- 1/11 - Indiana (43%)
- 1/17 - at Wisconsin (41%)
- 1/21 - Nebraska (81%)
- 1/24 - at Rutgers (40%)
- 1/29 - Michigan (53%)
That’s six winnable games where five project as toss ups. If Penn State overperforms there, it would go a long way toward setting up a postseason resume. However, even some modest missteps could spiral the season. As such, it’s going to be huge for Penn State to come out of the gates running.
8. Projected Starting Lineup
- PG: Jalen Pickett (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
- SG: Andrew Funk (Rs. Sr.) - 90%
- SF: Myles Dread (Rs. Sr.) - 95%
- PF: Seth Lundy (Sr.) - 90%
- C: Demetrius Lilley (Fr.) - 55%
(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)
Despite some notable offseason departures, Penn State enters this season with a pretty solid and predictable starting lineup. The team has four starters that can be pretty easy to pencil in. The question will be who will fill out the final spot and how the rotations will play out, particularly in the frontcourt.
In the backcourt, expect Pickett and Funk to lock down starting spots. Both are experienced guards who can score in bunches when needed. As long as they’re healthy, expect them to start. The only real question will be who will play behind them. This figures to be a battle between transfer Wynter and incoming freshmen Clary and Brown. It figures to be an interesting battle with a lot of variation as the season goes on. Fans will hope the two freshmen can really develop in the coming months.
On the wing, Dread and Lundy should start. Like Pickett and Funk, they’re experienced players who should be finishing their final seasons with the program. They’re going to play and likely a lot. Behind them, expect Caleb Dorsey and Nje to get a lot of time, particularly as they get their feet under them this season. Mahaffey and transfer forward Henn should also play a factor here.
The final position, however, will come with some uncertainty. We have Lilley penciled in, but it’s really hard to tell who will start there. Penn State doesn’t have much depth there and most of the options aren’t even natural fits. As such, Lilley seems likely to get an initial look with a lot of rotation. Don’t be surprised if you see some odd faces here as Micah Shrewsberry feels things out.
Overall, it’s hard to complain too much about a lineup entering a season where the team has a fairly good idea on four starters and has a variety of potential reserve options behind them. The challenge will be getting those four to progress and finding the final starter.
9. Realistic Team Goals
It’s hard to describe how frustrating the last few seasons must have been for Nittany Lion fans. It’s one thing to watch your team struggle, but to see it cheated out of an NCAA bid and gradually decline from there must be a tough pill to swallow.
Fortunately, Penn State finally looks poised to move on from those horrors with stability on the bench and experience in the lineup. The challenge will be keeping things in perspective. This is still a program trying to find its footing under Shrewsberry. Competitiveness has to be the first goal.
10. Overall Season Outlook
Last season was a mixed one for the Nittany Lions. While there were some positive performances, Penn State struggled mightly. The team was never competitive at the highest levels and could never find consistency.
However, the team will now look to put that past behind it. And with some talented newcomers and some key returners, it seems like a reasonable goal. This roster looks unequivocally better than last year’s group, save the center position. If Penn State can find some answers there, a postseason bid isn’t unthinkable.