It’s been a while since fans of Penn State Basketball even entertained the idea of the team playing beyond the Big Ten Tournament in March. Eight straight conference losses will do that to a fan base. At this point, we just want to see improvement; a spark from a young player or an inspired performance from a vet. Something that will convince — at least those of us who aren’t there already — that athletic director Sandy Barbour shouldn’t just rocket Pat Chambers into deep space at the end of the campaign.
It’s a good sign that Lamar Stevens seemed to rediscover his three-point shot during last week’s game against Minnesota that Penn State should have won on the road. It’s nice that three freshman guards — Rasir Bolton, Myles Dread, and Myreon Jones — are all getting playing time. But this team should have been so much more this year.
Josh Reaves occasionally flashes his ability on offense, but with so many greenhorns in the backcourt, Penn State needs him to be the floor general and get to the basket more often. Mike Watkins has done a great job to work his way back into the fold given his off-court issues, but after an inspiring performance against a super tough Michigan team, he’s faded into the background.
I thought the departure of Tony Carr would allow for Reaves and Watkins to blossom, but instead it has exposed them as guys who aren’t good enough to be the second and third best players on a contending team. Dread is developing into a decent long-range shooter, but when I watch other teams in the Big Ten play, it becomes apparent how disadvantaged the Lions are from a skill perspective. Michigan State played at Iowa on Thursday night, and each team consistently had four or five guys on the floor who could knock down a jump shot. Kenny Goins is just a role player on MSU, but he would be one of Penn State’s best players due to his ability to rebound and knock down the occasional three-pointer. Meanwhile, Watkins doesn’t have any range outside of 10 feet from the basket.
Comparing PSU to the Spartans is a little unfair, but a team like Iowa makes for a good case study. The Hawkeyes were at the same level as Penn State not too long ago, but then they hired Fran McCaffery as head coach eight years ago. The new head coach quickly elevated the program to the middle of the Big Ten, and from 2014 to 2016 it made the NCAA Tournament three years in a row. Iowa doesn’t get the big sexy recruits that the top programs get, but McCaffery finds a way to get skilled shooters like Peter Jok and Jordan Bohannon in his lineup every season.
Chambers always has his teams playing hard, and the way he’s developed the program’s defense is impressive, but his squads have been lacking in the shooting department, and that’s proven to be a major hurdle. Perhaps a different coach could take Penn State in a new direction.
As for the Rutgers game, I previewed it for Black Shoe Diaries yesterday. In a nutshell, I’m scared of the Scarlet Knights getting a boost from Eugene Omoruyi, who recently returned from injury. I still think the Lions pull away with a win, though, because Rutgers has been so lousy on the road. Chambers has got to get this point guard situation figured out and maybe sit Bolton down for a while so he can stop missing threes and turning the ball over.
Penn State has played a tough schedule and had a bunch of close games go the wrong way. The advanced stats say that PSU isn’t as bad as its record says. Still, if the Lions fail to beat Rutgers at home, there will be little doubt about their status as the worst team in the Big Ten. Let’s avoid that, please.
I’ll be watching the basketball game from a pep rally for Penn State Ice Hockey. The guys on skates are taking into Michigan at Madison Square Garden tonight, so I grabbed tickets since Penn State is never this close to home. The hockey team has lost four in a row after a hot start to the season, so hopefully it pulls out of the rut for me. It’s Snap-the-Losing-Streak Saturday!