Players to watch
Lamar Stevens | Junior, Forward
Stevens was named the NIT Most Outstanding Player after the Nittany Lions’ championship run last season, averaging 19.2 points in the tournament — including 28 points (including 4-of-5 three-point shooting) in the title game against Utah. That’s the type of production Penn State could use as it moves forward this year without its two starting guards in Tony Carr and Shep Garner. Stevens put up 15.5 points per game for the 2017-18 season, but will be asked to do more as more of a centerpiece for the Nittany Lions’ offense.
Josh Reaves | Senior, Guard
Count the 6-foot-5 veteran guard as a frontrunner for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors this season. Reaves was named to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team last season along with teammate Mike Watkins and was in the top 15 nationally, averaging 2.18 steals per game. The Fairfax, Va., native also averaged 10.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season, but his second-most important contribution after his defense could be his passing. He was second on the team in assists (3.1 per game) a year ago and could be key to a Penn State offense with a new point guard.
About the coach: Pat Chambers
Penn State finally made the leap last season in Chambers’ seventh in State College.
The Nittany Lions posted a 26-win season, and that included a five-game run to claim the 2018 NIT championship. It’s just not exactly the tournament — or tournament title — they really wanted.
Taking that next step and getting to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2010-11 is the challenge for the Nittany Lions.
“That’s the goal,” Chambers said. “Make no mistake about it. That is the next step in our process — the next step in our climb — is to get to that next tournament. Penn State basketball definitely climbed last year. I feel like the players feel it. There’s great momentum for us.
“The fans feel it as evidenced by our ticket sales right now are skyrocketing, which is fantastic. We’re climbing in the right direction. I think that’s why there’s so much optimism surrounding our program right now.”
Josh Reaves led the Big Ten in steals last season and is considered one of the top shutdown guards in the conference.
Mike Watkins might have missed Penn State’s final nine games — and NIT championship run — with a knee injury, but before he was hurt posted a top-30 block percentage and top-10 defensive rebounding rate.
The Nittany Lions’ identity is clear. Defense comes first.
“We have pretty much one offensive coach in (assistant) Jim Ferry,” Reaves said with a laugh. “Everything else is tailored toward us defending and rebounding, then getting in transition and using the athleticism we have. Our identity is defense and rebounding. It’s getting stops and trying to get as many possessions for us as we can without the other team getting good shots.
“We’re very strong on defense. It’s something coach (Pat Chambers) gets mad about when we’re not doing it, so we try our best not to get yelled at.”
Indoctrinating new players into that system is a multi-step process. Reaves said he tries to pass on being in the right spot at the right time, taking the right angles and knowing the Nittany Lions’ defensive language and communicating. The 6-foot-5 senior guard doesn’t necessarily always want young players watching what he does.
“I’ve been known to take a couple risks during practice,” Reaves said. “It’s kind of the do-what-I-say-and-not-what-I-do approach.”
Penn State returns three starters from last year’s 26-win team in Reaves, Watkins and junior forward Lamar Stevens. Replacing point guard Tony Carr is the Nittany Lions’ biggest challenge, but they’ve found a kindred defensive spirit in sophomore Jamari Wheeler.
“I’ve seen him take pride in his role of doing what he’s really good at,” Stevens said of Wheeler, who played sparingly off the bench a year ago. “He’s a pest on defense, he’s a great passer and gets everybody involved and he makes great finishes around the rim. He’s been great for our team.”
Nov. 9 — North Florida
Nov. 12 — Jacksonville State
Nov. 15 — at DePaul
Nov. 20 — vs. Wright State#
Nov. 21 — vs. Bradley/SMU#
Nov. 27 — Virginia Tech
Dec. 1 — at Maryland
Dec. 4 — Indiana
Dec. 8 — Colgate
Dec. 15 — vs. N.C. State$
Dec. 19 — at Duquesne
Dec. 21 — at Alabama
Dec. 29 — UMBC
Jan. 3 — at Michigan
Jan. 6 — Wisconsin
Jan. 10 — at Nebraska
Jan. 13 — Michigan State
Jan. 16 — Iowa
Jan. 19 — at Minnesota
Jan. 26 — Rutgers
Jan. 31 — Purdue
Feb. 4 — at Northwestern
Feb. 7 — at Ohio State
Feb. 12 — Michigan
Feb. 16 — at Purdue
Feb. 19 — Nebraska
Feb. 23 — at Illinois
Feb. 27 — Maryland
March 2 — at Wisconsin
March 6 — at Rutgers
March 10 — Illinois
# — at Hard Rock Hotel, Cancun, Mexico
$ — at Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City, N.J.