We could have had such a damned good time. Every few years, I get a little bit over my skis and start making wild predictions about Penn State basketball. I'll look down the road a couple of recruiting classes in the future. I'll irrationally project a roster immune from injury, suspensions, transfers, and other early departures. It makes no sense why I do this, Penn State Basketball has certainly done nothing to cultivate this irrational exuberance.
There's a Fox Mulder motivation here in that I want Penn State basketball to be, well, not necessarily good but at least a real basketball program. One where there isn't a tarp covering entire sections of Bryce Jordan because there are never enough fans to justify opening those seats and, well, it's embarrassing. I want to hear someone other than the same 25 Penn State students (God bless 'em) giving a "We Are" chant during the games.
I don't mean to say Penn State is the worst Big Ten basketball program. Rutgers has to hold that title, Nebraska's trophy cabinet is barren, and Northwestern certainly has little to stick its chest out over. But the first two are new to the Big Ten, and Northwestern will always fall back to admissions standards and/or the size of the school or something. If you were an alien that descended yesterday and tried to make sense of conferences, as a school with just over 8,000 undergrads, Northwestern's inclusion in the modern day Big Ten seems appropriate only from a geographic perspective.
Penn State fits, it definitely belongs. There's 40,000 students attending the school in central PA, the football team has a rich history, and it gets midwestern cold in the winter. It feels like a Big Ten school in every way except the basketball team is almost always a joke.
But Pat Chambers was changing that. Specifically, he was changing that with a trio of recruits—Mike Watkins, Tony Carr, and Lamar Stevens—all from the Philadelphia area. All were highly ranked recruits, which typically do not attend Penn State. Carr could have gone to a lot of different places, such as Maryland, Georgetown, and Indiana. Stevens also could have been a Hoosier, or played at Villanova. Watkins committed just after his sophomore year, but was another 4-star recruit.
Last year Penn State rode the talents of those three sophomores to 26 wins. But sadly, the team threaded the needle of playing like a top-20 team and not making the NCAA Tournament. Fittingly, the Nittany Lions saved their best basketball for the National Invitation Tournament. Carr in particular played brilliantly in his final four games, concluding with a 15 points, 14 assist (1 turnover) performance in the championship.
I don't know if Carr leaves early if the Lions do not make it to MSG. Maybe he does. At 6-5, he possesses great size for a point guard, and he's a solid outside shooter. But the NBA ultimately did not see it. He was drafted in the second round, and a month later signed with a team in Italy. I do not begrudge a player for making professional decisions they believe to be in their best interests—go and get yours—I just wonder whether Carr would still leave school if he knew what he knows now.
Stevens still remains, and figures to be the top option in Penn State's attack. The 6-8 forward can score around the paint, but his outside shot has remained a liability. Thus, unless that changes, I have my doubts he can remain efficient if his usage creeps up over 30.
Watkins has been a ruthlessly efficient player for Penn State, and is well-positioned to help Stevens carry the load. On the other hand, though, is that he keeps getting in trouble with the law. Since arriving on campus, Watkins has
- Smashed a window at a burger joint (placed in accelerated rehab disposition program)
- Failed to comply with the ARD program, his participation was revoked
- Didn't show up for a court appearance
- Cited for disorderly conduct for fighting
- Charged with possession of marijuana
- Punched a guy at McDonald's after Watkins was confronted about cutting to the front of the line
It's easy to dismiss weed charges (we're still arresting people over that?), but punching people? Fighting? Smashing windows? Cutting to the front of the line at a McDonald's? For his part, Watkins revealed he is dealing with mental help issues, and I do hope he gets adequate treatment. But I've got to believe Watkins is down to his final strike. Chambers surely hopes he toes the line—Big Ten centers with above average usage typically do not shoot over 70 percent from the field. Yes, it's mostly dunks and layups (68.5% of his shots came at the rim, per hoop-math.com), but so what? Good for him for getting so many dunks.
After those two? There's Josh Reaves, who is a handy role player to have, but probably overmatched on the heavy shot diet he's likely to inherit this season. The team also welcomes a guard-heavy recruiting class, but none of them are in the class of Carr or Stevens as recruits. Overall, this team is a player or two short of being an NCAA Tournament threat.
But, maybe Seth Lundy (2019 commit) is a real difference maker, and maybe Chambers convinces Dahmir Bishop to make the same Philly to University Park trek. And one or two of these freshmen play above their 3-star status and stick around for a few years, and a big man transfers in...
And then Penn State puts a great team on the court for a couple of years, and it's enough to put the days of filling the arena to under half-capacity firmly in the rearview mirror. And when a Lion alum declares that they're "more of a Penn State basketball fan" they don't get looked at like they've made a @dril statement.
It's pretty to think so, at least.