In order to understand 2021-22 Penn State Nittany Lions basketball team, you have to go back one season: Mere weeks before the 2020-21 season started, former head coach Pat Chambers, coming into his would-be 10th season with the program, announced his resignation effective immediately. As a result, several of the players who committed to him ended up leaving the program following that season.
Three starters (Myreon Jones to Florida, Jamari Wheeler to Ohio State, Isaiah Brockington to Iowa State), two rotation players (Trent Buttrick to UMass, Abdou Tsimbila to Fordham), and a promising freshman (D.J. Gordon to Fordham) meant whoever took over the Nittany Lion job in the offseason would have their work cut out for them right off the bat.
Here comes Micah Shrewsberry, a young, aspiring coach who spent years under two respected, longtime head coaches in Brad Stevens and Matt Painter. Shrewsberry spent no time salvaging what was left of the roster while bringing in the best talent he could. His biggest win in that department was keeping John Harrar (more on that later), Seth Lundy, Myles Dread, and Sam Sessoms from transferring, as losing any of those would have meant less than 30% of Penn State’s production would return.
Shrewsberry complemented the returnees with a few key transfers: Jalen Pickett, one of the most sought after mid-major prospects out of Siena, Greg Lee, capable big man in his own right, as well as Jaheam Cornwall, Jalanni White, and Jevonnie Scott, three players expected to add depth and contributions behind the projected starters.
The astute in you will point out that there were only five additions to six subtractions, which meant that yes, Penn State played the season without a full allotment of scholarship players, as they had 11 of their 13 available scholarships filled by current players.
All in all, the Lions did the best they could given the circumstance, and, unless you’re a die-hard Penn State optimist (read: me), Penn State exceeded any possible expectation anyone could have placed on him, when you consider the roster turnover, schedule, and this being Micah’s first head coaching season at the division 1 level, let alone a Big Ten team.
As mentioned above, Penn State exceeded most reasonable folks’ expectations prior to the season. the 14-17, 7-13 Big Ten finish, plus two Big Ten Tournament wins was, by far, the best season a first-time head coach has had since Johnny Bach back in 1968-69 (no, we don’t count Jerry Dunn). They did so by continuing to foster the defensive identity they had been accustomed to under the previous staff, and adding a more free-flowing offense that allowed open players to take open shots, while mitigating the stagnation that became so patented in years prior.
Some of the highlights include:
John Harrar - A “zero” star recruit, as he put it, who was brought in to provide depth for former big man Mike Watkins, who ended up becoming one of the leading rebounders in the conference in his final season, second only to Kofi Cockburn in total rebounds and double-doubles, and ahead of him in offensive rebounds. Penn State won many a game due to, and because of, Harrar’s tenacity on the court. He will be missed.
Seven Big Ten Wins - Most outlets predicted anywhere between two and four wins. Penn State outperformed most of those by getting seven, while being competitive in the majority of their games. For a first year coach, starting off on the right foot is paramount to building something sustainable.
Two Big Ten Tournament Wins - It ended at the hands of Purdue, as it usually does, but the Nittany Lions managed to make it to Friday’s lineup in the Big Ten Tournament, getting past Ohio State in the process.
It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies for the Nittany Lions this season, as the growing pains led to a number of missed opportunities on the court, as well as some downright embarrassing performances at times.
Injuries - Myles Dread played with an injured shoulder all season —his shooting shoulder, Greg Lee didn’t make his first appearance on the until January with an injured foot, and would be unable to finish out the season due to aggravating the injury. Jevonnie Scott, while not injured, also missed considerable time as he waited to become academically eligible to play.
The Debacles Against UMass, Indiana, and Nebraska - Part of the growing pains for a new coach, and a new team, is getting to work together. No better example of that than the beginning of the season against UMass, where former Nittany Lion Trent Buttrick had the game of his life, as the Minutemen would run circles around the Lions on their way to a 25-point win. At Indiana, the Nittany Lions score a measly 17 points in the first half, and would find themselves losing by more than 30 at certain points. And, of course, the crown jewel of embarrassment, Penn State allowed the most regulation points it had all season, when Nebraska dropped 93 on John Harrar’s last game at the Bryce Jordan.
Cancellations - Cancellations due to covid erased what could potentially have been the difference between a .500 record and a losing record, as Penn State’s final three non-conference games were canceled due to exposure on both sides.
Penn State’s first season under Micah Shrewsberry was a poor performance when looked from an outside perspective. From a Penn State perspective, though, this is a great position to build on the momentum this season, in the hopes it will lead to big things the future:
Top 25 Class - Penn State’s 2022 recruiting class is ranked 24th in the country. This makes the 2022 class the highest Penn State has had in the history of these rankings, being two spots higher than the Lions’ 2016 class that included Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens. The five-player class includes three players in the top 200, and two others in the top 250 of 247 Sports’ composite rankings. The 2023 class is off to a good start as well, with two commits in the fold and a number of visits already being scheduled.
Key Returnees - Jalen Pickett and Myles Dread already announced their intentions to return. Seth Lundy and Dallion Johnson, who broke out this season, are expected to return. The only player with eligibility left who has opted to transfer so far is Sam Sessoms. The Lions will need to find someone to help replace the big hole Harrar left, and if they are, the experience along with incoming talent should help the Lions continue to stay competitive.
All in all, the Nittany Lions did the best they could given a tough situation. They may have underperformed from a national perspective, but from a Penn State standpoint, there’s a lot to hope for the future of the program.