It's almost basketball season! We've already covered the sad, sad previews for Rutgers, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Illinois. Now it's time to cover a team with hope, potential, and a big empty arena that it can't possibly fill even if Pat Chambers builds a winning program.
2015-16: 16-16 (7-11), Kenpom No. 140
Coach: Pat Chambers (6th Year)
Departures: F Brandon Taylor (graduated), C Donovon Jack (graduated), C Jordan Dickerson (graduated), G Devin Foster (graduated)
Additions: G Nazeer Bostick (freshman, three stars), G Tony Carr (freshman, four stars), F Lamar Stevens (freshman, four stars), F Mike Watkins (redshirt freshman), G Terrence Samuel (transfer from UConn, sat out last year)
The three true freshman represent the most talented recruiting class that Penn State has ever brought in. When you combine that with two more experienced players who have a chance to crack the starting lineup, you end up with a lot of names for Big Ten basketball fans to learn in a hurry.
Expected Starters: PG Shep Garner, SG Josh Reaves, SF Payton Banks, PF Mike Watkins, C Julian Moore
Garner and Moore are locks to start, but everything else is close to a guess. I don't even know if Garner will play point guard in the first game or if he'll work off the ball while Carr steps in to play the one right away. There's also a good chance that Banks gets overtaken by Stevens rather quickly. Chambers has been saying in his media sessions that he's got 10 guys capable of cracking the starting lineup and that he'll go that deep on a given night. That sounds crazy for college basketball, but it sure is exciting to hear for a fan of a program that isn't used to this kind of depth. In addition to the five expected starters listed above, the next five rotation guys would be Bostick, Samuel, Carr, Stevens, and Davis Zemgulis, the sophomore wing from Lithuania.
The non-conference schedule is a lot less friendly than we're used to seeing for Penn State, but that's good for a team with postseason aspirations. There are big neutral-site battles with Duke and Pitt that will probably wind up as losses, but also some games against respectable opponents that aren't impossible but also won't ruin RPI. Those are at George Washington, versus Georgia Tech (B1G/ACC Challenge), and at St. John's. If the Lions can sweep those three games and not trip up against Duquesne or George Mason, we'll consider the non-conference schedule a great success.
In conference play, Penn State plays the following teams twice: Minnesota, Rutgers, Illinois, Indiana, and Purdue. Two of those teams are decidedly worse than Penn State right now, so defeating them is a must if the NIT is going to be a thing this year.
Besides talking about how the rotation is 10 men deep, the other big claim that Chambers has made this autumn is how the offense will play at such a fast pace that Penn State will average 80 points per game. That's a spicy take for someone whose squad reach 80 points just four times last season. I get that the influx of talented freshmen along with Watkins makes for a team that is way more athletic than it was last year, but playing quickly is just as much about skill as athleticism, and this team is still not a great shooting team.
Someone who can change that is Garner, the junior combo guard who played very well down the stretch in 2015-16 with at least 20 points in five of his final six games. He only shot 38 percent from the field for the season, but that figure was trending upward in a big way towards the end of the campaign. If the Lions are to compete for the NIT while scoring bunches of points like Chambers says they will, Garner must continue his terrific play and have a breakout season.
There are plenty of other players capable of growth as well, and we're not just talking about the freshmen. Josh Reaves was an "energy guy" last year who wowed with his defense, but his offense was too inconsistent for him to have a big impact on that end of the floor. If Reaves is able to develop his jumper and make more aggressive cuts to the basket, he may also turn into a star for this team.
Watkins might be getting more hype than anyone else on the roster because of his combination of size and athleticism. He might not begin the season in the starting lineup (although I have it projected that way), but the redshirt freshman could make a huge impact in the transition game and on defense.
There's a lot for Penn State fans to be excited about this season, but there's also plenty of unknowns. Who can say how big of an impact the highly-touted freshmen will have or if Garner turns into the next Talor Battle? The postseason is not a guarantee because the Big Ten is going to be as tough as ever, but this might be your last chance to jump on the bandwagon before Chambers's program really takes off.
I'm not saying the jump is going to happen this year, but with zero seniors on the 2016-17 team, it will be fun to watch the young Lions grow and dream about an NCAA Tournament run in 2017-18.