Next season is a crucial one for Penn State’s Pat Chambers. After four seasons with the program, Chambers has struggled to field competitive teams in Big Ten play, but with improved recruiting and some returning experience on the roster, many are hoping that Penn State can finally start to take a step forward.
But realistically, where should expectations be set for Penn State next season?
When trying to get a gauge on a team coming into a season, the starting line is always the team’s performance from the prior season. Unfortunately, the Nittany Lions had a frustrating season in 2014-15. Though Penn State was competitive in a large number of conference games and even pulled off some upsets against teams like Iowa and Minnesota, it struggled to a 4-14 record in the Big Ten. It did go 12-1 in non-conference play, but admittedly, many of its wins were against sub-par opponents.
On top of what was a disappointing 2014-15 season for many fans, they also lost what was one of the best Penn State players in recent memory. Though DJ Newbill only played a few years with the program, he was statistically one of the best players in the program’s history and easily the team’s top player from last season. Just take a look at how he compared to the rest of the roster last year.
(Stats per KenPom).
Add in the loss of Ross Travis to graduation and Geno Thorpe to transfer and things look even more challenging for Penn State. Finding a way to improve from an underwhelming team to a decent team is challenging enough by itself, but to try and do it while also losing three of the team’s top five in total minutes makes it just that much tougher.
Of course, the cupboard isn’t bare in State College. To start, the team returns two of its better players from last year in Jordan Dickerson and Shep Garner with Garner having the potential for a breakout season. Garner was easily the team’s best newcomer last year and was very arguably one of the best players on the roster despite his freshman status late in the year.
If all goes right, with these two returners, Penn State should have at least one solid piece in Garner in the backcourt and a stable piece upfront in Dickerson to use as a core to build around. Still, even though two players is a good start, it still doesn’t do all that much to raise expectations for next year. However, it’s the pieces around these two that could make things intriguing.
Not only does one of the team’s better bench options in Brandon Taylor return, but Penn State also brings back Payton Banks and Julian Moore and is adding two four-star recruits in Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins, according to ESPN. Reaves certainly won’t be able to replicate the production of Newbill, but he should fill the shooting guard spot in the lineup and Watkins could offer a big boost upfront to what has been a frontcourt with decent depth, but without top-tier talent.
There’s no doubt that these returning players and newcomers don’t look anywhere close to some of the Big Ten’s better teams on paper, but there are at least some options to work with for next season. There likely will be no star player anywhere near what Newbill was doing in 2014-15, but if the Nittany Lions can find two or three really good starters instead, they might actually end up with a better team than they’ve had in recent years.
So, again, where should expectations be for next season?
As mentioned above, it’s pretty clear that this is not a Big Ten championship roster. Even if things go right, it’s just hard to imagine this team being able to go toe-to-toe with teams like Indiana, Maryland, and Michigan State. Realistically speaking, it’s also tough to see Penn State being in that sure-fire NCAA Tournament range. Now, if things go perfectly, they might be able to get into that discussion, but with no proven All-Big Ten candidates returning and a talented, but very young lineup, it’s just tough to realistically see Penn State as a lock for the Big Dance.
The next level is where things get interesting though. The Nittany Lions will be picked by very few to be a borderline NCAA Tournament team, but it’s certainly not that unrealistic. They have talent, should have some depth, and do have some experienced pieces. Again, the youth and the fact that they will be required to rely on incoming freshmen are both concerning, but if Garner improves, Reaves is the the real deal, and at least one of the frontcourt players turns into a quality starter, then they at least have a shot. Still, given the concerns, this is probably a little bit too high of expectations heading into next season.
Realistically, expectations should probably be somewhere from the above .500 to NIT range. There is absolutely talent on this roster and fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about the future of the program, but it’s also hard to take an 18-16 team that loses three of its biggest contributors and expect them to take a major step forward while relying almost entirely on underclassmen. Fans are always going to want an instant impact from talent and to see results immediately, but to realistically set expectations for Penn State, it’s not that hard to argue that simply maintaining the status quo will actually be a step in the right direction with the team’s youth.
Pat Chambers may not have put together a great record at Penn State and will still have plenty to prove over the next few seasons, but expectations might need to be tempered for the near future. The Nittany Lions should have talent and plenty of options, but until some of the younger players have time to develop and find their roles, it will likely be a growing process for the Nittany Lions.