I was in State College earlier this month for my bachelor party and knowing I was one of five die-hard Penn State basketball fans, one of my groomsmen reached out to the program about getting a tour of the Bryce Jordan Center. I was thrilled with the access we got to the locker room and Pat Chambers’s office, but the most fun part was probably the NIT trophy. You’d think that thing would be behind glass and off limits, but our tour guide was very accommodating.
Hey, it’s not like they don’t have another one, right? Okay, that was the worst humble brag ever. I guess I was fired up because by letting commoners touch the NIT trophy, Penn State is letting us know that it has higher goals on its mind. Like maybe qualifying for the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Talor Battle was running the show.
It’s not that crazy of a dream this year. We got news in the spring that Lamar Stevens would be returning to school, and that’s huge for a program that needs to rely on experienced stars. It’s not like Penn State is bringing in the same kind of recruits as Michigan State and Michigan, but Stevens will match up with the best talent that the country has to offer this season. He was second in the Big Ten in scoring in 2018-19 with 19.9 points per game, and if he improves his three-point shot over the summer, he’ll be nearly unstoppable.
The optimism around Stevens isn’t just a local phenomenon. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi thinks so highly of the rising senior that he listed Penn State as his very last team to qualify for the field of 68 in his summer Bracketology update.
I love the squad’s chances to make the Sweet 16.
Getting into the tournament, though, is going to require some help from Stevens’s teammates. The other big returning factor is Mike Watkins, who should continue to defend the rim on defense and provide finishing ability on offense. The problem is that the backcourt is a big question mark. Chambers brings in some depth with a couple of transfers in Izaiah Brockington (St. Bonaventure) and Curtis Jones (Oklahoma State), but neither is likely to fill the void left by Rasir Bolton, last year’s freshman star who transferred to Iowa State in the offseason.
Bolton’s surprising departure leaves Stevens as the only returning player who scored more than 10 points per game in 2018-19. If Myles Dread or Myreon Jones — two guards who were also freshmen last season — doesn’t step up, Penn State is going to find itself in a familiar spot: without enough shooting to make a serious impact in the Big Ten.
You have to give Chambers credit. His teams always play with the hard-nosed edge that he preaches. Even with Josh Reaves graduating, the 2019-20 Lions should have another great defensive team. How far the team goes will depend on if Stevens is able to pass the ball into made three-pointers when the inevitable double-teams come.
Three years ago when Stevens, Watkins, and Carr were all freshmen, PSU fans figured this was the trio that would get Penn State back to the big dance. Carr leaving for the NBA changed things, but there’s still a lot of pressure on Chambers to win big with the talent he’s recruited. I have to believe that this year is the one in which he finally breaks through. Because it’s just more fun to believe, you know.