Going into the 2018 season, there were high expectations for Patrick Chambers and the Penn State basketball team. Lofty expectations were fair given that the program was coming off an NIT Championship last March. Add in three wins over Ohio State and a tough road win over Notre Dame in the NIT tournament and you can see why expectations were raised going into this season.
Obviously, a deep NCAA tournament run is not expected, but a 20-win season and a berth into the tournament are fair to expect. This program is not close to being a blue blood, but they should be expected to be a respectable program at this point. After last year’s success, it is fair to expect Penn State basketball to take the next step.
Now eight games into the season and Penn State sits at 4-4. It had the impressive scrimmage win over West Virginia and the home triumph over then No. 13 ranked Virginia Tech. But there have been some bad losses mixed in their as well, such as the losses at DePaul and against Bradley in the Cancun Challenge.
Penn State has not looked outmatched in any of its games thus far, but the Nittany Lions don’t have the ability to finish and knock off teams they should beat. Even in games that they were the inferior team, if a couple of small things go differently, then Penn State has a few more victories in its pocket.
Through eight games, the biggest takeaway surrounding Penn State basketball is that it lacks a true identity. Last season, they were led by Tony Carr and Shep Garner. Those two were able to put the team on their backs at times and lead them to victories.
This season, Penn State has that leader in Lamar Stevens, but the Nittany Lions aren’t getting enough production elsewhere. Stevens leads the Nittany Lions with 21.1 points per game, the next best is freshman Rasir Bolton, who is averaging 11.9 points per game.
Even though it won the NIT last season, Penn State has the same issue it has this year. They are too dependent on their number one guy on offense, an issue that has gotten worse since last year. Penn State needs to get more production from the guys not named Stevens.
A big reason for all this is that Penn State has not found itself an offensive identity. Too often does it see itself going to Stevens and having him in isolation settle for mid-range jumpers and try to attack the rim. When it works it’s great, but more often than not, fans are left scratching their heads.
Outside of Stevens’ isolation, much of Penn State’s offense is drive and kick. The Nittany Lions often find themselves settling for 3s when they can’t get to the rim. We have seen guys like Josh Reaves, Bolton and Myles Dread settling for 3s. When they go in, it looks great, but for a team that is shooting only 30 percent from behind the arc there have to be better ways to run its offense.
After missing the first five games of the season because of off-court issues, redshirt junior big man Mike Watkins is back and has played the last three games. Watkins is only averaging 2.7 points per game and often it appears that Penn State’s guards neglect their big men on offense in both Watkins and John Harrar.
For a team that struggles shooting from beyond, getting to the rim on a consistent basis, and hitting its free throws, Penn State is going to have to turn it around fast if it wants any chance at making the NCAA tournament come March.
Too many possessions end in Stevens’ isolations or low-percentage shots and that is not a recipe for success. Penn State needs to do a better job of finding its big men, especially Watkins and running its offense through the low-post.
Penn State can get away with lackluster offensive play against inferior teams such as North Florida and Jacksonville State. But, once Penn State gets into the heart of Big Ten play, stuff like that isn’t going to cut it.
Penn State had a great win over Virginia Tech. Too often we see this program have those flashes of brilliance, but then come falling back to earth with losses to teams it should not lose to. Those big wins are nice, but more consistency is needed out of this program going forward.
The responsibility falls onto Coach Chambers. In his eighth season leading the Nittany Lions, it is up to him to find this offense an identity. Time is running out and if he can’t do that and take the next step with this program, then the time may be fast approaching for Penn State basketball to go a different direction.
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