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2018-’19 Penn State Nittany Lions Basketball Season Preview

The 2018-’19 ‘BTPowerhouse Season Preview’ series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2018-’19 season with analysis on each program’s previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team’s starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local “insider” who covers said team.

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Winning the NIT is weird.

What do you do? Do you begrudgingly accept the trophy, knowing it’s a forever reminder of missing the NCAA Tournament? Do you lock down a parade route and load up the confetti canons? How do you handle it?

Twice now in my Penn State fandom I’ve been faced with this Pandora’s Box and have settle on it depends.

In some situations, the NIT Title is a disappointing pinnacle for a team that failed to meet its potential (See: Penn State’s 2009 NIT Title and its subsequent 11-20 record). And sometimes, it’s a stepping stone for a young team on it’s way to bigger and better things (See: Wichita State’s 2011 NIT Title, which preceded seven straight NCAA Tournament appearances).

With that in mind, what will the legacy of Penn State’s 2018 NIT Championship be? Well, unsurprisingly, it depends.

If the trio of Mike Watkins, Josh Reaves, and Lamar Stevens take an unheralded, albeit sneaky good, freshmen class under their wings and onto the NCAA Tournament Promised Land it’ll be remembered fondly as a crucial step in the program’s self-imposed climb.

But if the loss of Tony Carr, arguably the best player in program history, proves too much to overcome in a much-improved Big Ten, it’ll be yet another hollow and frustrating accomplishment in a depressingly barren trophy case.

If you ask athletic director Sandy Barbour, she’s betting on the former after doling out a four-year contract extension to head coach Patrick Chambers this offseason. However, if you surveyed an assortment of typically Penn State fans (read: football, football, and more football) the gamut of responses would run somewhere between ehhh and this.

Now how do I see it playing out? Well let’s get into the weeds and see what type of educated guess I can make.

  • Record: 26-13 (9-9)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #19
  • RPI Rating: #47
  • Postseason Appearance: Won NIT

Ask any Penn Stater you pass on the street to recap last year’s basketball season and you’re more than likely to get one of three responses: A) We won the NIT! :excited fist pump: B) We won the NIT… :exasperated eye-roll: C) Wait, we have a basketball team? :confused scrunchy face:

Putting aside option C for now —dissecting Penn State basketball’s fan support, or lack thereof, is another piece for another day; and I wouldn’t fault someone for having opinion A or B.

Penn State’s 2017-’18 season had some truly high highs and some head scratchingly low lows. For every win over a good Ohio State team (there were three of them, each special and unique in its own way), there was a poorly timed injury to Mike Watkins, or a home loss to Wisconsin, or a home loss to Rider. Sure, you might as well win the NIT if you end up at college basketball’s junior prom, but doing so does create a gnawing feeling of what could have been.

Looking over the Lions’ advanced metrics/statistics and that last point becomes even more true.

According to everyone’s favorite stats guru KenPom, the Lions were far-and-away the best team left out of the NCAA Tournament with a final overall ranking of 19 (the next closest team to Penn State was St. Mary’s at 32).

But they won the NIT, so doesn’t it make sense that they were KenPom’s highest rated non-NCAA Tournament team? You’d think so, but no.

Since 2002, the NIT Champion has only been KenPom’s highest rated non-NCAA Tournament team eight out of 17 times. If you want to discredit that as just a weird anomaly since tournaments are a crap shoot, that’s fine, but then explain this: Since 2009, only one program ranked inside KenPom’s final overall Top 20 missed the NCAA Tournament, and yup, that was last year’s Penn State team.

Furthermore, only 17 teams that earned a bid to March Madness had a higher combined offensive and defensive efficiency ranking than the Lions, which is just yet another way of saying Penn State was an NCAA Tournament-caliber team without the NCAA Tournament resume.

Oh what could (read: should) have been.

Depressed yet Penn Staters? Well, it gets worse!

Gone from last years statistically great but frustratingly bid-less 26 win team is Tony Carr, arguably the programs most naturally gifted player ever, and Shep Garner, who only happens to top the Lions’ all-time 3-pointers made list.

Carr did the unthinkable when he became the first player in program history to declare early for the NBA draft, ultimately being selected 51st overall by the New Orleans Pelicans. And while he won’t be joining fellow former Nittany Lion Tim Frazier down in the bijou right away (Carr is currently tearing it up with Italian Serie A club Fiat Torino), he leaves State College having led the Lions in scoring during each of his two seasons at Penn State.

Garner, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as flashy as Carr, but embodied all the things that make up a Pat Chambers basketball player (as well as a John Cena catchphrase) — hustle, loyalty, and respect. He’ll leave State College as the programs fifth leading scorer, while taking with him two of my favorite non-player personalities in Penn State history — cousin/hip-hop legend/clock aficionado Flava Flav and super team mom/fantastic anthem singer Kim Garner.

Together, Carr and Garner accounted for 40 percent of the Lions offense and were the only two players on Penn State’s roster to shoot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc. They also started a combined 76 games last year, and when accounting for the additional loss of transferred guard Nazeer Bostick, leave Chambers with just one player, sophomore Jamari Wheeler, who started any games at the one or two.

Other departures of note include the aforementioned Nazeer Bostick (who transferred to St. Peter’s), graduated forward Julian Moore (who’s absence may be felt early thanks to an incredibly thin Penn State frontcourt), and Dwayne Anderson (an assistant coach who played a key role in landing some of the Lions most heralded recruits and left the program to join Jay Wright’s staff at Villanova).

So yeah, there’s a lot to unpack here.

But there is hope!

While not as top-heavy as Chambers’ 2016 haul of Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens, Penn State’s 2018 recruiting class is guard heavy and features three players capable of contributing right away.

The bell of the ball looks to be 6-foot-4 guard Myles Dread. A product of The DMV, Dread is the early favorite to start at the two-guard for the Lions, and has looked every bit of a Big Ten player during preseason practices. Weighing in at 205 pounds, Dread gives Lamar Stevens a run for his money at Penn State’s super-jacked-and-strong-as-hell award. He also was a prolific 3-point shooter in high school and should help offset some of the offense lost by Carr and Garner’s departures.

Three-star guard Rasir Bolton is also in the mix for Penn State’s last starting spot, however, projects as a rotation player in 2018-’19 with a defined role as Jamari Wheeler’s backup at the point. Additionally, 6-foot-3 Memphis-commit-turned-Penn-State-flip Myreon Jones figures to have a roll coming off the bench this year as a high energy combo guard able to give minutes at both the one and two.

The potential X-factor, however, for Penn State this season is incoming transfer Izaiah Brockington. The Philadelphia-native and former St. Bonaventure Bonnie has flown under the radar since his initial college recruitment saw him decomit from NJIT only to entertain higher-profile offers, ultimately ending up in southwestern New York.

Despite his status as a less-than-heralded recruit by traditional metrics, Brockington contributed in his lone season as a Bonnie, averaging 4.3 points over 34 games played during the 2017-’18 season. A high-energy defender in the mold of Josh Reaves, Brockington would be a huge help to a Penn State team with significant depth concerns entering the year.

The only problem is that as things stand right now, he’ll be sitting out the season due to NCAA transfer rules.

Or will he.

If the NCAA’s willingness to hand out hardship waivers is any indication, getting Brockington cleared to play this year might not be as far-fetched as it seems. At Penn State’s recent media day, Pat Chambers said as much when he acknowledge the program is currently investigating whether or not Brockington would qualify for any type of wavier. If by the grace of the basketball Gods the 6-foot-4 spark plug gains immediate eligibility, he could be plugged into the Lions starting lineup to form one of the top defenses in all of college basketball.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

It’s not often one can compare a college basketball team to a classic work of literature, but bear with me, I’m going somewhere with this.

Much like Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, Penn State’s 2018-’19 season is shaping up as a tale of two units. And based on the construction of this preview, we’ll get to the point of optimism first.

In the recently released 2019 KenPom rankings, the Nittany Lions check in with an adjusted defensive efficiency ranking of 12th in the nation. That spot is good enough for best in the Big Ten and seven spots higher than where Penn State ended last season.

Why is that, you ask? Well, for starters, for as impressive of a play as Tony Carr was, one main knock against him throughout the season and all the way through pre-NBA Draft workouts was his questionable play as a defender. He’ll be replaced in the starting lineup with Jamari Wheeler, a ferocious on-the-ball defender who’s motor runs on a scale typically reserved for Spinal Tap’s amps.

Joining Wheeler as major projected contributors for Penn State are two reigning members of the Big Ten All-Defensive team in Mike Watkins and Josh Reaves.

In his freshmen year, Watkins was seventh in the country with an 11.7 block percentage and ranked eight overall with an eight defensive box plus/minus. For those not familiar with advanced basketball analytics that means he was super good at swatting away the basketball.

Last year, Watkins actually saw a dip in his numbers thanks to an early season suspension and late season knee injury. But had it not been for some dude named Jaren Jackson Jr. the redshirt sophomore would have more than likely still paced the Big Ten in all blocking statistics.

As for Reaves, I could go on and on about what he brings to the table as a defender or how he led the Big Ten in steals last year, but why waste the words when a video does him much more justice:

What’s even more frightening (in a good way) about Penn State’s projected defensive efficiency prowess is it doesn’t taken into consideration the potential addition of Izaiah Brockington. Should he be deemed eligible at any point during the season and inserted into the Nittany Lions’ lineup, Pat Chambers would go from having a ridiculously good defense to a historically great one.

It’ll be fun to watch the Lions play without the ball this season.

And then there’s the offense.

Yeessshhhhhh.

Remember how just a few paragraphs ago I mentioned how Jamari Wheeler would actually be an upgrade defensively for Tony Carr? That couldn’t be further from the truth on offense.

The freshmen struggled mightily to make much of an impact offensively averaging a measly two points per game in 2017-’18 while being the only Nittany Lion to average at least eight minutes of playing time yet post a negative offensive win share.

Unfortunately, and not to beat a dead horse, it doesn’t get any easier for Penn State at the two guard, where Shep Garner and his silky smooth stroke form three will more-than-likely be filled by a rotating cast of freshmen. And while the presumed starter Myles Dread was a proficient long ball shooter in high school, expecting him to step directly into the lineup and replace one of the greatest marksmen in program history is an unfair expectation to put on the first year player.

Fortunately, however, for Penn State fans, Pat Chambers seems well aware of the changing identity of his basketball team. When asked if he expected the Lions to maintain its 85-points-per-game pace from a year ago, he was upfront about his changing expectations and hope for Penn State to be a 70-plus-points-per-game team in 2018-’19.

Regardless, to say the Lions should prepare for some growing pains and a dip in its high-octane offense from last season would be the understatement of understatements.

There are only a few things in life I remain 100% certain of. A hot dog is definitely not a sandwich. Dylan is the greatest rapper of all-time. The world is round (sorry, Kyrie). And Lamar Stevens is the best player on Penn State’s 2018-’19 roster.

In each of his previous two years, Stevens has made noticeable strides in nearly every statistical category that ultimately went unnoticed thanks to Tony Carr grabbing the limited number of basketball-related Penn State headlines.

Now, entering his junior season, the team and its offensive production will fall squarely on Stevens and his rather broad shoulders. Luckily, the North Wales-native looks more than ready to take on that responsibility.

How ready?

Try under-the-radar Big Ten Player of the Year ready.

A reserved and straightforward player at an under-the-radar program, it’s easy for Stevens to get lost in the shuffle. That’s why you probably didn’t realize he ranks in the top 10 of Big Ten returnees in total points scored (604, second overall), points-per-game (15.5, seventh overall), total rebounds (232, fifth overall), minutes played (1290, first overall), and blocks per game (1.1, 10th overall),

You probably also missed him being named the 2018 NIT Most Outstanding Player, as well as recently being named to the watch list for the 2018 Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award.

Couple these accomplishments with the fact that Stevens is a known gym rat who recently declared himself in the best shape of his life and “as strong as I have ever been” and you’ve got reasons to be optimistic about his upcoming campaign.

Add that into the likelihood of an increased role and new alpha dog status for 2018-’19, and yeah, I think you’ve got the makings of a Big Ten Player of the Year contender.

Don’t sleep on Lamar Stevens this year — consider yourself warned.

  • 11/3 – at West Virginia (Ex.)
  • 11/9 – North Florida
  • 11/12 – Jacksonville State
  • 11/15 – at Depaul
  • 11/20 – Wright State (Cancun, Mex.)
  • 11/21 – Bradley/SMU (Cancun, Mex.)
  • 11/27 – Virginia Tech
  • 12/1 – at Maryland
  • 12/4 – Indiana
  • 12/8 – Colgate
  • 12/15 – NC State (Atlantic City, NJ)
  • 12/19 – at Duquesne
  • 12/21 – at Alabama
  • 12/29 – UMBC
  • 1/3 – at Michigan
  • 1/6 – Wisconsin
  • 1/10 – at Nebraska
  • 1/13 – Michigan State
  • 1/16 – Iowa
  • 1/19 – at Minnesota
  • 1/26 – Rutgeres
  • 1/31 – Purdue
  • 2/4 – at Northwestern
  • 2/7 – at Ohio State
  • 2/12 – Michigan
  • 2/16 – at Purdue
  • 2/19 – Nebraska
  • 2/23 – at Illinois
  • 2/27 – Maryland
  • 3/2 – at Wisconsin
  • 3/6 – at Rutgers
  • 3/10 – Illinois

Now this is a schedule I can get behind…sort of!

After what seems like years of questionably constructed cupcake non-conference schedules, Pat Chambers and Penn State’s athletic department have put together a slate of games with pretty much zero resume black holes.

Once again, using KenPom as a guide, none of the Lions non-con foes have a ranking lower than 234 (that being everyone’s favorite 16-seed UMBC). On top of that, Penn State has two neutral site games against Wright State and NC State (ranked 125 and 36 in KenPom, respectively) that project as very winnable games; the former being played in Cancun and the latter within Penn State’s preferred recruiting footprint in Atlantic City. Penn State will also get another resume boosting game against either Bradley or SMU (112 and 37 KenPom, respectively), with the opponent dependent on first round results of the Cancun Challenge.

On top of THAT, Chambers is taking the show on the road for three true road games, two of which suddenly don’t look so bad thanks to the NCAAs quadrant system and the weight it places on road games.

In DePaul, the Lions matchup with unarguably the least desired Gavitt Tipoff Games opponent, but with the game taking place in Chicago, the Blue Devils KenPom ranking (I’m making broad assumption about RPI—er, NET, seeing as those figures won’t take shape until games begin to be played) of 77 becomes a borderline Quad 1 opportunity. Likewise, playing Duquesne and its 171 KenPom ranking is perfectly fine since the game is taking place in Pittsburgh in front of what I’ll assume will be a fairly pro-Penn State crowd.

Rounding out the Lions non-conference schedule is a game Penn Staters have been clamoring for incessantly over the past couple years, albeit with one major caveat — Penn State finally gets Alabama (but on the hardwood). Kidding aside, I expect this to be a feisty game between two programs trying to escape its respective football shadows while giving the two schools a sneaky-good home-and-home series over the next two years.

All-in-all, if Penn State misses the NCAA Tournament this year, the non-conference schedule won’t be the culprit.

As for the Big Ten slate of game, I’m not going to dive in too deeply if only because it is what it is. That said, I do have one minor yet reoccurring bone to pick.

Penn State has exactly one home Friday or Saturday Big Ten game. Just one. And it’s against Rutgers.

Whoopsie.

For a program looking to build a brand and develop a fanbase, having only one Friday or Saturday home game is an absolute killer. State College isn’t exactly a bustling metropolis and is, at best, a two hour drive from its most heavily populated alumni base (and that’s the Capital Region; Pittsburgh and Philadelphia are even further away).

Sure it’s easy to get 110,000 people up for a football game when it’s kicking off at 3:30pm on a Saturday, but when you ask a fanbase to drive multiple hours on a weeknight in January, February, or March? There’s no chance.

I’d cut the league some slack if this was a one year aberration, but sadly, it’s not. And before you say anything, I hear your argument about Penn State’s lackluster history not “earning” them marquee time slots. However, without fans, the Lions can’t develop an atmosphere. And without an atmosphere, the Lions can’t develop an identity. And without an identity, well, they really can’t develop a winning culture. So throw Penn State a favor here Big Ten, otherwise the Lions will continue to live out its curtained off basketball life.

PG: Jamari Wheeler (So.) – 100%

SG: Myles Dread (Fr) – 51%

SF: Josh Reaves (Sr.) – 100%

PF: Lamar Stevens (Jr.) – 100%

C: Mike Watkins (Rs. Jr.) – 100%**

(Percentage likelihood of starting.)

Barring injury or suspension, four of the Nittany Lions’ five starting spots are spoken for.

We’ve touched on the locked-in foursome of Wheeler, Reaves, Stevens, and Watkins in some capacity throughout this preview, but to quickly recap: Wheeler shoots bad but defends like a wacky-waving-inflatable-arm-flailing-tube-man; Reaves and Watkins do specific things fantastically (Reaves = Highest of energy, Watkins = dominating rim protector) that should cause NBA folks to start sniffing around; and Stevens might just be ready to take the Big Ten by storm.

As for what happens at the off-guard? Your guess is as good as mine. Or as good as Pat Chambers, too.

“I will tell you right now – we have four starters and we’re looking for a fifth and it’s an absolute dogfight for that fifth spot between the freshmen, and it’s been a lot of fun,” said Chambers at Penn State’s recent media day. “I want to be efficient so we’ve done a lot of different lineups and right now the lineup that fits us best is the four guys and one of the freshmen.”

And that’s where Myles Dread comes in. Between his success as a 3-point shooter in high school to the physicality he’ll bring from day one, he’s pretty clearly the freshmen most prepared to play starters minutes and compliment Penn State’s preferred style and pace preferences for 2018-’19.

With his skill set and immediate opportunity for playing time, he should contender for a spot on the Big Ten’s All-Freshmen team, albeit under-the-radar thanks to the program he plays for and a number of higher profile incoming recruits across the Big Ten.

With that said, you may think it’s odd that I only gave Dread a 51 percent shot of filling the Lions’ two-guard spot. Well that’s because of the unsettled situation surrounding Izaiah Brockington and his eligibility.

As things stand right now, it appears he’ll be sitting out the year as penalty for transferring, but that sure sounded less than set in stone when speaking with Pat Chambers at media day.

And if the 6-foot-4 sophomore were to be granted a hardship wavier and deemed eligible by Penn State’s first game on Nov. 9, I’d give him the nod to round our the Lions’ roster.

**It’s worth noting that Mike Watkins has been declared out indefinitely due to a few off the court issues and will be replaced temporarily in the starting lineup by sophomore John Harrar. It’s also worth noting that Watkins is a remarkably brave young man and if you haven’t read his essay from The Black Cager, you should drop everything you’re doing and do so right now.

“The national perception of this Penn State team isn’t as high as it should be. The losses of Tony Carr and Shep Garner are significant, but the Nittany Lions still return over half of a starting lineup that won the NIT last season.

Lamar Stevens is more than capable of filling in Carr’s shoes as the go-to scoring option and I fully expect the offense to be more efficient than it was last season where at times it relied too heavily on Carr and led to bad possessions. Stevens has First Team All-Big Ten potential and I expect him to be one of the conference’s leading scorers.

Pat Chambers’ star defensive player Josh Reaves is also back for his final season in Happy Valley. Reaves is a popular pick to win Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and for good reason. He led the conference in steals last season and many thought he was deserving of the award.

Jamari Wheeler will likely start the season at point guard, but he could be overtaken by freshman Rasir Bolton if he doesn’t perform up to standards. Speaking of freshmen, Bolton is joined by two other highly-rated guards, Myles Dread and Myreon Jones. There’s plenty of hype surrounding Dread after his team-high 23 points in the exhibition game against West Virginia and he’ll likely start alongside Wheeler in the back court.

In the front court, Mike Watkins returns as another potential All-Big Ten player. He’s in a bit of legal trouble again and will likely miss the team’s first few games, but once he returns he’ll be back to being a key part of Penn State’s defensive success. John Harrar started the final eight games in place of Watkins last season, who was out with an injury, and was impressive. He’ll likely be back on the bench when Watkins returns, but he gives Penn State a starting-caliber big man off the bench, something the program hasn’t had in quite some time.

The Nittany Lions finally have an intriguing non-conference schedule that includes teams like N.C. State, (likely) SMU in Cancun, Virginia Tech and Alabama. The team’s first six games in the Big Ten are tough, but if they can get through that at .500, while picking up a few key wins in the non-conference, a 12-13 win season in the Big Ten and an NCAA Tournament birth aren’t out of reach.”

2018-’19 is either going to be an unequivocal success or an unmitigated disaster.

Should Penn State’s on-the-fly makeover from a high tempo offensive juggernaut to a headache-inducing defensive cavalcade go off without a hitch, it’ll more than likely find itself on solid footing towards an NCAA Tournament bid.

However, should the gaping Tony Carr and Shep Garner sized hole in its offense prove too much to overcome, the Lions only postseason experience could be the opening Wednesday of the Big Ten Tournament.

So the glass either spillith over or remains bone dry.

If Lamar Stevens takes yet another step forward while the duo of Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins show why their names are creating NBA Draft buzz, it could very well be a special season in Happy Valley.

But, if Penn State’s lack of frontcourt depth and inexperience at guard provide bigger-than-anticipated speed bumps, the programs self-anointed climb might be grounded before ever taking flight.

So Schrodinger’s Cat is either very much alive or super dead.

Analogies aside, the point here is simple — Penn State’s margin for success is razor thin and there’s really only two outcomes. There’s no .500 conference record. There’s no defending the NIT Crown. Either Pat Chambers rewards the athletic departments faith in him by delivering a long-awaited return to March Madness or the wheels fall off early and never get put back on.

That’s what makes prognosticating this upcoming season for Penn State so difficult. You either believe the pieces have finally fallen into place or you foresee one of the many potential cracks turning into a fracture and taking the season down with it.

That said, I like this Lions team enough, losses of Carr and Garner be damned, to project them as a top seven Big Ten team. Assuming everyone stays healthy, they’ll play a style of basketball that can help hide any offensive deficiencies and should find a NCAA Tournament beth in-play for most of the season.

But enough talk. Can we throw the ball up and do the damn thing already?

(Please note: Final Big Ten predictions come from Thomas Beindit.)

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