STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Pat Chambers has spent enough time at Beaver Stadium to know the excitement building around his basketball program is measurable in ways it once wasn’t.
Fan reactions to his recorded scoreboard promos have been noticeably louder and more people are approaching the Nittany Lions basketball coach, now in his eighth year, to talk hoops at football games.
Having your best season in nearly a decade will have that effect.
“They know we’re heading in the right direction,” Chambers said. “They know we’re doing a lot of positive things. We have to keep this momentum going.”
It’s been building for a while.
Penn State capped a 26-win season — its best since a 27-win campaign under Ed DeChellis in 2008 — with a convincing romp through the National Invitation Tournament where the Nittany Lions routed Utah 82-66 in the finale.
“The way we handled opponents in the NIT showed what we were capable of and possibly what we could’ve done in the (NCAA) Tournament,” forward Lamar Stevens said.
While Penn State just missed making the NCAA Tournament field, the Nittany Lions should have a tougher time trying to return to the tournament for the first time since 2011 without Tony Carr.
The Big Ten’s leading scorer last year with 20 points per game, Carr gave the program another lofty accolade when he became the first Nittany Lion taken in the NBA draft since 1999.
Chambers looks at the makeup of his team and is confident a group of talented freshmen can complement a core of veterans who have spots in the lineup locked up. When Carr and fellow star Stevens arrived, the onus was on them to play heavy minutes and contribute as much as possible right from the start.
“They don’t have the pressure on them that Lamar and Tony had,” Chambers said. “They can play the Robin and not be the Batman. They can play the third or fourth scorer on the team.”
BIGGER, BETTER LAMAR
Stevens was nearly unstoppable in the postseason, where he averaged 19.2 points complete with a 28-point performance in the finale. He’s spent time in the gym this offseason where he’s added muscle to his 6-foot-8 frame.
The reasoning behind that? He’s prepping for more double teams with Carr gone.
“Any time he gets the ball we’re doubling him (in practice),” Chambers said. “He’s going to learn how to make plays out of the double team and he’s going to find different ways to score the basketball if that’s what they’re going to do in the half court.”
DEPTH UP FRONT
Penn State’s NIT run took place without Watkins who missed the final nine games of the season with a right knee injury. Chambers said the team’s top rebounder has looked great all summer and his absence down the stretch allowed the team to explore its forward depth.
That surfaced in the form of John Harrar who averaged 7.4 rebounds per game in the postseason.
Carr and Garner combined to shoot 65 percent of the team’s 3-pointers last season. Aside from Stevens, no other player attempted more than 35 3s. Finding a sharpshooter is among the team’s top priorities.
Chambers has reason to be optimistic as newcomers Rasir Bolton and Myles Dread have both shot near 40 percent from beyond the arc in preseason practices.
Penn State opens against North Florida on Nov. 9 and barring injuries or other developments, Stevens and Watkins will start at forward with Reaves at guard and speedster Jamari Wheeler bringing the ball up. The fifth spot is still up for grabs.
“It’s an absolute dogfight for that fifth spot between the freshmen, and it’s been a lot of fun,” Chambers said.