If Pat Chambers is going to work out at Penn State, it has to start this year. I don't mean that this is a make-or-break season for the Nittany Lions, just that the "future when Penn State basketball is good" should include players that are on the current roster. And hey, it might be as soon as this year.
Penn State's ascension begins with last year's freshmen class, now sophomores. Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens were high school teammates winning championships in Philadelphia. Both were top-tier recruits that could have gone to just about any program in the country, and they both decided to take their talents to State College. That's not just "a little bit weird"—as my five-year old would say, it's "a lot of bit weird."
But credit Chambers. He did what many have tried and failed to do at Penn State, which is bring in the top talent from Philly to the middle of the state. If Chambers promised them early playing time, he delivered. No Lion saw more floor time than Carr, and Stevens played 70 percent of the available Big Ten minutes. To be honest, it might have been too much time, as both players were burdened with heavy shot diets to go along with their extended minutes. The end result was a lot of exciting basketball and a lot of freshman mistakes.
Carr and Stevens were not the only impact freshmen on campus. Joining them was redshirt center Mike Watkins (also from Philly). On a per minute basis, Watkins was actually the best of the three, augmenting his high efficiency in the paint (61 field goal percentage in Big Ten play) with some of the best post defense in the conference. He finished second in defensive rebounding percentage to Caleb Swanigan, and second in block percentage to Reggie Lynch. High marks in both categories are more rare than one might assume, because it's hard to secure a rebound after attempting to block the same shot. But despite being just a freshman, Watkins handled that duty with aplomb. Still, even Watkins has room to improve by lowering his foul rate and becoming more assertive on the offensive end.
That's OK, however, because as Al McGuire said, the best thing about freshmen is they become sophomores. That's particularly true for ranked recruits. Tony Carr was a top-50 recruit, while Stevens and Watkins were borderline top-100. I expect big things from all three. That should make things easier for the likes of Shep Garner and Josh Reaves. Still, the team has obvious needs in the frontcourt. Watkins is capable, but I have my doubts he can play over 30 minutes a game. Stevens is now listed at 6-8, and can probably defend the post in a pinch, but I doubt Chambers wants him for long stretches at the center position. There are a couple of freshmen with the requisite size, but unless one of them happens to be massively underrated, I don't see effective contributions coming this season. Finally, there's Satchel Pierce, a 7-0 transfer from Virginia Tech, but he was actually recruited over by Buzz Williams.
Even if no frontcourt help materializes, the amount of baked-in improvement from a team that loses very little from last season and is chock full of talented sophomores should be enough to get Penn State at least to the Bubble. The question will be whether Chambers can push the team past that threshold, and beyond, before the sophomores finish their time in State College.