From a certain point of view, the 2016-17 Penn State Basketball season was just like every other season in the Pat Chambers era. There surprising wins, but also mind-numbing defeats. The team always played hard, but that often wasn’t enough to make up for poor shooting or inexperience. Once again, the Lions fell short of not just the NCAA Tournament, but the NIT as well.
Despite all the similarities between other disappointing campaigns and this one, Penn State fans are more excited about the future than they’ve ever been since Chambers took the head coaching job in 2011. The reason for that is a trio of talented freshmen that raised the long-term ceiling for the program and proved that it isn’t impossible to recruit top-level talent to State College.
While former head coach Ed DeChellis was sometimes able to find gems like Talor Battle and Tim Frazier from outside of Pennsylvania, Chambers was stubborn about using his Philadelphia roots to attract talent from the City of Brotherly Love. The strategy finally started paying off in 2016-17 as Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins started to form the core of what could be the best Nittany Lion hoops squad in a very long time.
Despite all the hype surrounding the incoming freshman at the start of the season, the first game was a dud. Penn State lost to Albany 87-81, but at least we got a glimpse of what the newcomers could do and how serious Chambers was about playing an up-tempo style.
As you might expect from a young-but-talented team, the non-conference slate was filled with encouraging wins but also disappointing losses as the Lions slowly learned what they were capable of as a team. Wins over George Washington and Georgia Tech were balanced out by blowout losses to George Mason and Pittsburgh, but Penn State headed into Big Ten play feeling good with an emphatic 92-76 victory over St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.
The solid vibes didn’t last long, as the Lions were quickly trounced by Northwestern in the conference opener. However, less than two weeks later, Chambers’s squad would get a signature win by defeating Michigan State at the Palestra, 72-63. With the trio of Philadelphia freshmen all scoring in double figures, the victory was a symbol that the effort Chambers made to bring eastern Pennsylvania talent to State College was finally paying off.
As you might imagine, Penn State’s offense didn’t continue to look that great. Payton Banks and Shep Garner — the team’s two best three-point shooters — struggled with consistency and disappeared for large chunks of time while Mike Watkins was often too deep in foul trouble to run gorgeous pick-and-rolls with Carr.
The fast-paced offense that was designed to take advantage of the team’s athleticism (and avoid the stagnant half-court offense as much as possible) also led to some turnovers and missed opportunities due to inexperience. As a result, Penn State only won four more regular season games after beating Michigan State, but there were so many close calls. Twice the Lions were a possession away from taking down Indiana, and they went to overtime with Purdue at home thanks to an incredible late-game surge by Carr.
That game solidified Carr’s status as Penn State’s leader and most important player. Not only was he in charge of distributing the ball as the point guard, but he was capable of creating his own shots and being the go-to guy with the game on the line.
Back in November, it looked like Stevens might be the MVP of this team, and there’s still potential for that. He just doesn’t touch the ball as much as Carr and went through a major scoring slump early in Big Ten season. However, during February and March, Stevens started coming into his own by slashing to the basket more often and having more confidence in his jump shot. Before February 1, he was 0-for-4 from three-point range, but afterwards he shot 11-for-28, a development that allowed Stevens to keep defenders honest and lead the Lions to back-to-back wins over Maryland and Illinois.
As frustrating as it was to watch Penn State at times, fans could see potential brewing all year round, from that opening loss to Albany until the final buzzer sounded at the Big Ten Tournament. Next year, with the leadership of Carr, scoring ability of Stevens, shot-blocking of Watkins and the incredible defensive versatility and athleticism of Josh Reaves (that I haven’t even mentioned yet because I’m terrible) all coming back, this team could make the quantum leap that fans have been dreaming about since the program’s last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011.