Lamar Stevens had always known that Tony Carr, his longtime friend, teammate and confidant was leaving.
Carr never told him outright, but conversations throughout the course of Penn State’s 2017-18 season did more than enough to put the writing on the wall, it may have been unspoken, but it was understood.
So when he finally announced his decision to declare for the NBA Draft not long after Penn State’s NIT Championship win over Utah, there was no shock across the face of Stevens as he stood in the back of the room, just a smile.
Nevertheless, somewhere in Stevens’ mind a thought bubbled up, maybe just for a minute or simply a second. The thought of his own future at Penn State.
The math was simple; if Carr had returned the Nittany Lions would have been almost certainly been a preseason Top 25 team if not at least receiving votes in both polls. Penn State could have even made a claim as one of the better teams in the Big Ten and a not unreasonable hope to make a run at a conference title.
Instead there is a void, tentative excitement in the place of what might have the most hyped lead-up to a Penn State basketball season in decades. Where certainty would have been now sits hopeful optimism.
But the love, that was still there. That will always be there.
“You know, he had to do what’s best for him,” Stevens said in the practice gym at the Bryce Jordan Center. “So I can’t ever feel a type of way if somebody is doing what’s best for him and his family. So that kind of overtook all of my emotions, and I was still really optimistic about this team. Of course there are going to be questions when you lose such an important piece of the team, but I feel like guys have really stepped up and answer my questions so far.”
In Stevens’ defense, the belief that Penn State can’t be as good without Carr as it was with him might be unfounded. The Nittany Lions enter the official start of their season on Friday with a scrimmage win over Temple behind closed doors and more impressively, a road scrimmage victory against No.13 West Virginia in a game that sure didn’t look like a exhibition. They have at least two extremely talented freshmen and a returning corps of players that Penn State would have killed for any number of years prior.
At the center of all of it is Stevens, a fairly soft-spoken forward who will receive the bulk of the defensive attention in the coming weeks as teams look to slow down the Nittany Lions. For Stevens it has been an interesting transformation over the years. He is the last of the Roman Catholic group, a quartet of players headed by Shep Garner that hailed from the same high school, the same streets, the same stories.
Now Garner is gone, Carr overseas, Nazeer Bostick, another longtime friend of Stevens, no longer with the team. It’s just Stevens, but he’s okay with that, the transition hasn’t been as jarring as he expected, not quite as difficult to swallow as he once thought.
“I thought it would be (weird) but Ive gotten so close with everybody on the team so quickly and I have a great relationship with the coaches. They’re like my friends too,” Stevens said.
“I thought it was going to be weird but honestly it has not been bad. As a freshman we kind of came in and were a little more stubborn about opening up to the rest of the team, because we were always together. We had pretty much always grown up together and played together our whole lives so I think we were in our own little clique our first year but then we realized we really needed everybody and it couldn’t be like that and we really spread our wings and I’m friends with everybody on the team top to the bottom and I think that was a big part of our success last year.”
Now for Stevens the challenge isn’t getting himself ready as much as it is getting everyone else up to speed. He is -without much an argument- one of the best players in the Big Ten. In turn his charge is making the players around him even better. He can do it, now it’s a matter of ensuring everyone else can. Early returns on freshen Rasir Bolton and Myles Dread have certainly come back positive, but Stevens knows the grind all too well.
“It’s hard being a freshman in a Big Ten,” Stevens admits. “So I think getting them ready will be my biggest challenge.”
For Penn State basketball, the Nittany Lions face a similar challenge to the team down the street, replacing household names with new ones, replacing proven talent with unproven potential. A win over West Virginia in any format has certainly gone a long way towards confirming that this team might be capable of just that. But in fairness, it’s just one game, one that didn’t actually count.
Even so, where football may have come up short of meeting a standard set by a team no longer playing, this Penn State team might in fact be equipped to do just that.
“First of all, how cool is that. There is a standard now that these guys have to meet,” coach Patrick Chambers said on Wednesday. “There is an expectation from all of you, and me and them that they have to meet. That’s fantastic. Every day we just have to get better. Get your practice time, get your shots up. If we do that and don’t worry about the noise and don’t worry about the distractions outside and focus on the task at hand”
The question still remains though, one that will be answered over the coming weeks and months. Can they do it without Tony? Probably, but seeing is believing.
“First of all Tony is a great player, we know that, but I do think these guys aren’t looking at it as motivation,” Chambers said of the need to prove people wrong. “I think they’re looking at it as we have a really good team. Jamari Wheeler is tough nasty little point guard, Myles Dread can drill it just like Shep Garner. Josh is Josh Reaves, do it all guy, Lamar Stevens is one of the Top 5 player in the Big Ten maybe the country, who knows, we’ll see how it all ends.”
“As long as we stick together and don’t get caught up in the other stuff, we have a chance a to be pretty good.”
Does Stevens wonder if they can do it? If he did once, he doesn’t anymore.
“No, I don’t wonder, I’m 100-percent confident in this team and myself that we can have success.”
And I tend to think he’s right.