At long last, the moment you’ve all been waiting for! Continuing our series of basketball previews, we finally reach Penn State Basketball! Sit back, enjoy 1100 words on the basketball version of Indiana Football (who, coincidentally, also had their blip of a year happen during the pandemic). A lot happened between October of 2020 and today, so let’s recap what the Big Ten’s Chaos Team, Basketball Edition™ is up to.
Penn State Basketball finds itself in sort of a weird position, one they don’t normally find themselves in. The Nittany Lions agreed to part ways with their long time coach, Pat Chambers, weeks before the season started.* Jim Ferry, who had been an assistant since 2017, took on the role of interim head coach for the 2020-21 season, and the difference in playing style was apparent from the start.
Penn State played a much looser style of basketball, going up and down the court, relying mostly on their nimble guards to generate a ton of points. Part of this was due to the lack of height, as John Harrar was all the Lions had at the center position, with Trent Buttrick and Abdou Tsimbila sometimes spelling the aforementioned Harrar inside.
The downside of course, was that a cold night by any of the Lions’ outside shooters meant big trouble, as Harrar alone could not handle some of the Big Ten’s best inside presences. Oftentimes Penn State would find itself with a healthy lead, only to see it evaporate in the span of minutes. Whether it was a blown 18-point lead against Seton Hall, a 19-point lead against Illinois, two separate leads against Ohio State, or the one against Iowa, the Lions had a nasty tendency to find the worst times to go on a scoring drought, turning what should have been wins into sure losses.
The pendulum, of course, swung the other way too. The Lions put up 50 points on Wisconsin in a half, when the Badgers usually allow 50 points a game. They also swept Maryland, taking a 6-5 edge in the series as Big Ten members. They blew the doors off then-No. 15 Virginia Tech, on the road, and gutted out a win against VCU on a last-second shot.
All in all, Penn State had some ups and downs, but had a lot more downs than they had ups, and Ferry’s audition to become the permanent head coach ended up as just that. An audition.
At the end of last season, Penn State did something no one thought they would, or even could do. The Nittany Lions actually spent the money required to get what looks to be, relatively speaking, a home run hire.
Micah Shrewsberry spent most of his career learning from some of the best coaches in the business. From 2008 until March of this year, Shrewsberry spent time as an assistant for either Brad Stevens (at Butler and with the Boston Celtics) or Matt Painter (at Purdue, two separate times). This has allowed Shrewsberry to soak up all the knowledge he possibly could, while also enabling him to develop his own coaching identity. In his second stint with the Boilermakers, Shrewsberry played the role of offensive coordinator, handling plays for, well, the offense. Their unexpected exit from the NCAA tournament aside, Purdue did a tremendous job on offense last season, utilizing a number of freshmen, leading them to the 26th Adjusted Offensive efficiency in the country.
All in all, Shrewsberry is someone who was destined to take a coaching job given his trajectory, and the fact that Penn State was able to land him speaks volumes on the level of investment the program committed to.
Things don’t stop with Shrewsberry, however. The head coach has assembled a coaching staff composed of the right combination of coaching experience and recruiting acumen, and the early dividends are starting to pay off. The Nittany Lions currently boast the No. 20 recruiting class in the country, which is good for fourth in the Big Ten.
As with any coaching change, the Nittany Lions saw a number of departures at the end of last season. The biggest of them all was the loss of guard Myreon Jones —who transferred to Florida, who was Penn State’s leading scorer last season. Other transfers of note were Jamari Wheeler to Ohio State and Izaiah Brockington to Iowa State. Some other players who didn’t see as much time also departed (Trent Buttrick, Kyle McCloskey, Patrick Kelly, DJ Gordon, and Abdou Tsimbila), which left Penn State with a bit of a hole to fill depth-wise.
On the other hand, Penn State returns a core of John Harrar, who went from scrappy backup his freshman season to one of the most sought after transfer prospects in the offseason, Seth Lundy, who showed flashes of brilliance last season, but needs to work on his consistency, Myles Dread, who looks to build on his junior season by expanding on his inside game, and Sam Sessoms, who, like the departed Wheeler, is a nightmare to play against on defense. Caleb Dorsey and Dallion Johnson, in their second year with the program, figure to see increased playing time this season.
The timing of Pat Chambers’ departure coupled led to the entire 2021 recruiting class de-committing, and, save for JuCo transfer Jevonnie Scott, Shrewsberry was quite content with keeping the scholarships in his back pocket while filling up the roster with transfers instead. Jaheam Cornwall, from Gardner-Webb, Jalanni White, from Canisius, Greg Lee, from Western Michigan, and most importantly, Jalen Pickett, from Siena, round out the rest of the roster.
The Nittany Lions have a relatively manageable non-conference schedule, with a combination of tough game on the road in VCU and UMass**, a challenging early season tournament that pits them against LSU and one of Oregon State or Wake Forest, and a number of winnable games at home, the biggest of which is Miami in the Big Ten/ACC challenge.
The conference schedule is not as unforgiving as it was last season, as the Lions avoid playing Michigan, Purdue, Illinois, and Maryland twice, only having to play Ohio State and Michigan State from the projected top half of the Big Ten twice.
All in all, this sets up for the potential of a winning season, as Kenpom is predicting, with a slightly underwhelming Big Ten record. I’m a bit more bullish than Mr. Pomeroy, as I envision the Nittany Lions scrapping two more wins in Big Ten play to finish 18-13, with a 10-10 conference record.***
*No one knows exactly why he resigned, and I don’t care enough to go beyond the fact that he did. And neither should you.
**It’s less that UMass is a world beater and more that it’s a road game.
***This is your obligatory disclaimer that, because we’re talking about Penn State basketball, a 7-24 type of season is not out of the realm of possibility.