Penn State was not a good basketball team last year. They finished 18-16, but got slammed as soon as competition started to heat up, going 4-14 in conference play; they probably shouldn't have been quite that bad, but the truth is there just wasn't that much talent on last year's squad.
That isn't the case for the 2015-16 season. Behind what is probably Pat Chambers' best recruiting class ever, PSU could make a leap next year. Let's take a look at the class in its entirety.
Reaves is the best player of the three in the class and probably will have the biggest impact on the team next year. He's a four star swingman from the prestigious Oak Hill Academy. His highlights are fun:
The Nittany Lions lost DJ Newbill, so they have a huge hole to fill on offense. Newbill was a ball dominant guard who played just a shade over 37 (!) minutes per game last year and boasted a 30% usage rate. That's a whole lot of offense. The good news is that Reaves should be able to step into that role pretty comfortably. He does his best work with the ball in his hands: he has a good enough handle to be able to get to the rim in the halfcourt and has the explosiveness to finish with authority when he gets there. He knows how to use screens pretty well for an uber-athletic high school guard. If he ends up with a usage rate around what Newbill's was last year, he'll probably slow down on defense, but he should still be able to match up well with more experienced players. He's long, athletic, and has good footwork. Reaves may not be a top eight rookie in the Big Ten next year, but he'll probably spend more time with the ball in his hands than most any other first year player, so look for him to potentially grab a spot on the all freshman team next year.
Watkins is a raw 6'8, 210 pound post player with promising athleticism. If he tacks on a few pounds before the season he should be able to anchor the paint on defense relatively well. Unfortunately, his range extends just about as far as his arm. Once he's in that range, though, he knows what to do.
He's already an excellent finisher in transition and in the halfcourt. He should be able to mesh really well with Reaves: Watkins shouldn't have the ball in his hands for too much longer than it takes him to jump, so he'll leave plenty of on ball time to Shep Garner and Reaves. Assuming PSU can even threaten on the perimeter, Reaves and Watkins could be an effective tandem in the lane.
It's unclear how much court time Zemgulis will actually see next season, but he is a pretty promising prospect and fits in well with his fellow incoming freshmen. He stands 6'6 and will have to put on some weight from his current 210 pounds, but he's a knockdown shooter that'll be able to stretch the floor to compliment the two potential lane monsters in Watkins and Reaves.
Penn State could be a better basketball team next year, but their record may not look much different than it did last year. There'll be even less room in the top half (or more) of the Big Ten next year. Aside from the stalwarts, Michigan should be better, Illinois could make a serious run, Purdue looks to be for real, Maryland will be even better, and Iowa could do some damage behind Jared Uthoff. That is brutal competition for a team that is trying to break a cycle of mediocrity. This class should give PSU fans hope for the future, both because all three players will most likely be on campus for at least two years, and because they are evidence that Pat Chambers hasn't hit his recruiting ceiling.
Overall, things seem to be looking up for Penn State. If their execution on the court can keep up with their improvements in recruiting, this long-mediocre program could make its way to the top half the Big Ten in basketball. We know that the overarching athletics program in Happy Valley can sustain a high level of success from football, now it may begin to spread over to basketball as well.