Every year at around this time, teams are ending their non-conference slate to prep themselves for the season’s toughest grind. Conference play is what separates good teams from great teams and how good a team actually is even if it had an incredible start.
Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers has a similar type of problem with his team as the Nittany Lions are 10-3 on the season with a split of their first two conference games. The early start to the Big Ten slate is due to the fact of the conference wanting to play the conference tournament in Madison Square Garden and the Big East refusing to change the date or venue of its conference tournament.
The high volume of wins looks good along with the improvement of big man Mike Watkins who leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage at 67.3 percent. His ability to alter shots at the rim has been the main reason for the dominance in the paint at times for Penn State, but he struggled to defend a superior frontcourt in Texas A&M in the Progressive Legends Classic.
Sophomore point guard Tony Carr has taken a huge step forward this season as he is second in the Big Ten in scoring and is fourth in assists. His shooting has been dramatically better than last year as he is currently fourth in the conference in 3-point shooting percentage at 53.5.
His high school teammate Lamar Stevens is second on the team in scoring, but has been erratic this season. He played great against the Aggies in Brooklyn, but struggled at home against Wisconsin in the conference home opener, even though Texas A&M had the superior talent in the frontcourt.
This type of erratic play from Stevens makes it hard for Chambers to rely on him to be the consistent second or third scorer. If he can become a mismatch for power forwards across the conference, Penn State has a good chance of finishing in the top half of the conference. Stevens can get to the basket against almost any defender, but struggles with turnovers as he leads the team with 33.
Watkins’ impact on the game is felt from the beginning as he is able to create shots for himself on the block and has good footwork in the post. The one problem with his game is free throw shooting as 57.1 percent could be troublesome in late game situations.
The lack of great teams in the Big Ten makes it possible for Penn State to finish the season better than it ever has since Chambers took over. The Nittany Lions have finished with at least 10 conference losses in every year since 2012 and has not won more than seven Big Ten games.
The Nittany Lions have the talent to go up and take a place in the top half of the conference, but the lack of big game experience could hurt them. Penn State should win half its conference games and potentially end its NCAA Tournament drought.