As March comes to a close, people around the nation are captivated with the madness of the NCAA Tournament with 16 seed UMBC knocking off number one Virginia. Loyola Chicago and its 98 year old chaplain Sister Jean have captured the hearts of America with a pair of buzzer beating upsets.
A tournament run that is going unnoticed is Penn State‘s trip to the NIT semifinals without sophomore forward Mike Watkins. The big man out of Philadelphia was injured in the home finale against Michigan, forcing head coach Patrick Chambers to make changes in his lineup.
The insertion of John Harrar into the starting lineup has given the Nittany Lions an ability to switch more on defense. Penn State’s work on the defensive end has been critical in beating Temple and Notre Dame in consecutive games.
In those defensive battles, junior Josh Reaves shined as he scored 37 points and grabbed 20 rebounds. His ability to play on both ends of the floor makes him one of the biggest X-factors in the field.
Reaves missed four games in the beginning of conference play and is now playing some of the best basketball of his Penn State career. The Big Ten steals leader played lock down perimeter defense on T.J. Gibbs and Markus Howard, who were quick guards able to get their shots up on all types of defenders.
Chambers has preached throughout the season that he loves the defensive intensity from his team and he’ll need it if the Nittany Lions want to win a NIT championship for the first time since 2009. Louisville made the NIT semifinals the same day as Penn State, but the Cardinals possess the length and ball pressure that could disrupt the offense.
While Chambers is not worried about future match-ups, he does need his sophomore duo of Lamar Stevens and Tony Carr to play like they against Marquette instead of Temple. The pair combined for 55 points as they exerted their superior size on the smaller Marquette team.
Carr struggled mightily against Temple, finishing the game with only 2 points on 1-12 shooting. The Nittany Lions cannot afford a poor game like that from him in Madison Square Garden if they expect to win the NIT. He also needs to make good decisions when the ball is in his hands and eight turnovers in three games is not ideal.
Penn State has been able to get through the tournament with multiple guys stepping up and that is what it takes to win in March. The team that plays best down the stretch always win and the Nittany Lions are looking like the best team in the NIT so far.