Rutgers hosts Penn State in a New Year’s Day matinee on Sunday in what is a crucial game for both teams. After each lost their conference opener by double digits, both teams would like to get a win early on in Big Ten play. While Penn State has struggled at times during their non-conference schedule, they also have plenty of talent on the roster. To find out more about the current state of the team, I spoke with Aaron Yorke of SB Nation’s Penn State Blog, Black Shoe Diaries. I asked him about their 8-6 start to the season, how the talented newcomers are meshing with star Shep Garner, as well as what to expect on the defensive end from Penn State. Here we go.
Penn State enters this game with an 8-6 record after a somewhat rocky non-conference run, followed by a double digit loss at home to Northwestern. What is your current assessment of the team and how key players are performing entering Sunday's road game at Rutgers?
Penn State is a bad basketball team right now. The Nittany Lions don't shoot well and they don't grab a lot of rebounds. These problems get worse when you consider that head coach Pat Chambers has Penn State run its offense at one of the fastest paces in the country. So instead of just a few missed shots spaced 30 seconds apart, we get lots and lots of missed shots in rapid succession. Just from looking at their final scores, you'd think that the Lions are a good offensive team and a really bad defensive one, but really they are okay on defense and bad on offense. Penn State runs down the floor in order to create space and layup opportunities, but there haven't been nearly enough layups created to make up for the team's lack of jump shooting.
The good news is that the freshman trio of Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins have flashed greatness during non-conference season, and it's better to be young and bad than old and bad. Plus, sophomore guard Josh Reaves just had the best game of his career with 22 points against Northwestern.
Penn State had a pretty challenging non-conference schedule (KenPom #177), while Rutgers had a much different philosophy during new head coach Steve Pikiell's first season (KenPom #347). What are your thoughts on how PSU scheduled their non-conference slate and does it give them any advantage against a less battle tested Rutgers team?
Considering that Penn State has several wins that are more impressive than Rutgers's best win, you have to give the edge to Penn State in the scheduling department. The results might not have been pretty, but it was fun watching this team go up against the likes of Duke and Pittsburgh over the past two months. Chambers made it obvious that he wanted to challenge his young team early and often, and he succeeded in that regard, even if opponents like Georgia Tech and St. John's weren't as solid as we'd like them to be.
After two stellar recruiting classes which included four 4-star recruits and finishing 16-16 and in 10th place in the Big Ten last year, what were the expectations for this team entering this season? What is the mood of the fan base at the moment?
Chambers said before the season started that his goal was to qualify for the postseason, but even an NIT bid feels far-fetched at the moment with a rough Big Ten slate laid out before us. Heading into the campaign, fans were looking to build on last year's surprising seven conference wins, but star forward Brandon Taylor has proven difficult to replace. Stevens is probably the closet thing Penn State has to someone who can create shots on his own, so hopefully we'll see his usage rate rise as the season wears on. After back-to-back blowout wins over St. John's and Morgan State gave us fans hope heading into Big Ten play, the loss to Northwestern was deflating. If the Lions fail to bounce back and win one of the easiest games left on their schedule, the few proud Penn State basketball fans may start questioning Chambers's youth movement.
This team is led by junior guard Shep Garner, who is posting remarkably similar stats to last season so far (14.1 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals). However, he is surrounded by more talent this season with freshmen Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens, both former 4-star recruits. Has his role changed at all on the court and how much of a leader has he become for this team in helping in their talented newcomers adapt to the college game?
During the offseason, I had hope that Garner would become a more efficient shooter and give the Penn State offense the boost it needed to make up for Taylor's departure. That has not happened yet, even though the rise of Carr as the starting point guard has allowed Garner to work off the ball a lot more often. Unfortunately, that adjustment has not caused his turnovers to decrease, nor has it given him the ability to hit more than 40 percent of his shots. Garner may be one of the most experience players on the team, but his leadership duties will shift towards the younger players soon if his on-court game doesn't improve.
Penn State ranks near the bottom in scoring defense and rebounding in the Big Ten entering this week, but also lead the conference in steals and are forcing opponents into 15+ turnovers per game. Is it a matter of players taking too many chances on defense and becoming undisciplined in the halfcourt, or has it been more of a younger players learning to play team defense at the college level?
Penn State's ability to take the ball away is a credit to Chambers's willingness to pressure opponents. Even when the Lions aren't trailing in the game, there's always the chance that they'll force the other team to navigate the entire length of the floor. Of course, when Penn State is down by a few points, the pressure will only increase, and this team has trailed often in 2016. That will lead to some steals. Meanwhile, a good chunk of the team's blocks are thanks to Watkins, who is already one of the most intimidating interior defenders in the conference. His ability to guard the paint and finish at the rim has been invaluable so far.
A lot of teams have played a 2-3 zone against Rutgers in an effort to pack the paint and force them to make jump shots. While Penn State plays mostly man to man defense, how much zone have they showed and do you expect they'll play some on Sunday? Do they ever press in the fullcourt?
You don't usually see Chambers play a full game of zone defense, and now that he has some top athletes like Reaves and Watkins at his disposal, he's playing more man defense than ever. On the other hand, a zone is a great way to keep Watkins out of foul trouble and allow him to lurk around the basket, so maybe we'll see more zone than usual in this game, especially if Rutgers's offense gets off to a hot start.
What is your prediction for this game?
This game might be Rutgers's best shot at a conference win all season, but Penn State's superior talent will prevail. That doesn't mean that the Knights will go winless in the Big Ten, though. There's always that trip to the Bryce Jordan Center.
Thanks again to Aaron for taking the time to give us great insight on Penn State ahead of their game against Rutgers on Sunday. Follow him on twitter here and for more information on Penn State basketball, click here. To read my answers to Aaron’s questions on Rutgers, click here.