Just like we said last week, today begins Off Tackle Empire’s team-by-team preview of the 2017-18 Big Ten Basketball season. We’re trying to do these in order from worst conference finish last year to the best, but Rutgers isn’t quite ready yet, so I’m going first. Penn State finished the 2016-17 campaign tied with Nebraska at 6-12, but while the Huskers saw a lot of their talent leave over the summer, Pat Chambers and the Nittany Lions are bringing all their major players back. Considering how much production the team got from its freshmen last season, expectations are very high for the upcoming campaign.
Chambers got to unwrap his most impressive recruiting class at Penn State and the results lived up to the hype. No, it still wasn’t good enough to qualify for the NIT, but a solid foundation was set for the future thanks to the efforts of Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins. All three guys were freshman to start the season, and all three played critical roles as 60 percent of the starting lineup.
Carr led the team with 13.2 points and 4.2 assists per game and quickly gained the reputation of a floor general. Like most freshmen that have to handle the ball as much as Carr did, he didn’t always take the best shot or make the best decision, but you can bet that his shooting percentage and assist-to-turnover ratio will improve as a sophomore. Although most of Carr’s top performances came in losing efforts, 2016-17 was all about creating hope for the future of the program.
That hope came in the form of some bright spots. The Lions upset Michigan State at the Palestra in a game that showed why Penn State should be playing home games in a small gym instead of a cavernous arena. Later in the season, the Lions knocked off Maryland and Illinois in back-to-back games. The Big Ten record would have looked nicer if overtime losses to Indiana and Purdue — not to mention the last-second defeat to Ohio State — had turned out a little differently, but those games are all the more reason to expect a postseason push starting this November.
Carr won’t be the only sophomore worth keeping an eye on. Stevens was second on the team in scoring, and he really took off in February after struggling for the first month of league play. At least part of his resurgence was due to the growing confidence in his three-point shot, an aspect of Stevens’s game that meshes well with his ability to attack the rim and get to the foul line. He should be an even more well-rounded and efficient scorer now that he’s had a summer to polish his game.
We should also see improvement from Watkins, who last year established himself as one of the top shot-blockers in the country. If he can stay on the floor for 30 minutes per night and expand his offensive game out to 15 feet this year, it would give the Lions a tremendous lift. Other teams have athletic scorers like Carr and Stevens, but Watkins is someone who can really separate Penn State from its competitors with the way he defends the rim.
Projected starting lineup
Tony Carr, Shep Garner, Josh Reaves, Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins
Reaves and Garner round out a starting five that we’ll expect to remain the same throughout the new season. While Reaves is the best on-ball defender that Chambers has, Garner is a shooter who took 65 percent of his shots from beyond the arc last year. With Jamari Wheeler, a new freshman point guard, joining the fray, Garner won’t have to worry about running the point when Carr sits down. Instead, he can focus on knocking down threes and stretching the floor, a skill that Penn State could use more of.
Like Stevens, Reaves seemed to grow more confident in his three-point shot late last season, but most of his value should continue to come on defense and the fast break. He’s the most athletic guy on the team, but that hasn’t translated into consistent scoring yet.
Most of last year’s bench production has left the program, and that leaves a lot of minutes for Wheeler and Virginia Tech transfer Satchel Pierce to eat up. Wheeler is known for his quickness and should be able to fill in for Carr right away in addition to playing alongside him at times. Pierce, on the other hand, should give the Lions another big man to turn to when Watkins gets into foul trouble. Last year’s backup center, Julian Moore, is still around, but there’s a chance that Pierce takes over most of his role in 2017-18.
Not many folks are talking about Nazeer Bostick right now, but he has the athleticism to rival that of Reaves and should provide defense and energy off the bench after missing some of his freshman campaign due to injury. Finally, Deivis Zemgulis hasn’t shown much in his first two years with the program, but he’s someone who can fill that backup three-point shooting role if the minutes become available.
I’d like to say that no one is returning more talent than the Nittany Lions, but teams like Purdue, Minnesota, Northwestern, and Michigan State are all bringing back most of the guys that made them NCAA Tournament participants last season. For Penn State to finish in the top of half of the Big Ten, the veterans are going to have to do more than just get better as individuals. If they don’t form a more efficient unit that’s capable of knocking down more open shots, we could see the Lions left out of the dance once again this March.
I’m confident that this team is talented enough to have its name called on Selection Sunday, but the soft non-conference slate and all the other good teams in the Big Ten will leave little room for error. I’ll say that the Lions go 9-9 in conference and barely sneak into the tourney.