After watching Tony Carr play in the NIT semifinals Tuesday night, Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak compared the Penn State guard to one of the best current players in the NBA.
Krystkowiak thinks Carr plays like Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, saying they’re both big guards who can pass, score and knock down 3-pointers.
“It’s a little eerie, really, when you look at him and you see the kid live to make that comparison,” Krystkowiak, who played nine seasons in the NBA, said on a teleconference Wednesday. “But he’s certainly the head of the snake and a leader on that team and quite a playmaker, so we’re going to have our hands full.”
With Krystkowiak watching after his team beat Western Kentucky earlier Tuesday night, Carr led the Nittany Lions to a 75-60 win over Mississippi State at Madison Square Garden. The Nittany Lions guard finished with a game-high 21 points, six rebounds and five assists as his team advanced to the NIT championship game to face the Utes at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Mississippi State didn’t have an answer for Carr’s size, passing ability and 3-point shooting — the traits that remind Krystkowiak of the 6-foot 3 Lillard, an NBA All-Star who is averaging 26.8 points and 6.5 assists this season. Carr, who stands 6-foot-5, drew a double team off of a ball screen on Penn State’s first possession and found teammate John Harrar for a two-handed dunk. He backed down 6-foot-2 guard Nick Weatherspoon in the post and shot over him for his first bucket of the night. And he finished 3 for 6 from beyond the arc in the win over the Bulldogs.
“Carr showed why he is, you know, considered one of the best players in the country,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said Tuesday night. “He really controlled things for them.”
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said he’s been most impressed by Carr’s 3-point shooting after an offseason of work. Carr, who shot 32 percent from 3-point range last year, is shooting 43.9 percent from beyond the arc this season. Krystkowiak referenced that clip as he talked about Carr’s skill set Wednesday. He’s been the catalyst for the Nittany Lions on their way to 25 wins this season.
“He makes everybody around him much better,” Chambers said.
NIT title or NCAA early-exit?
Krystkowiak and Chambers were both asked whether they’d prefer to win the NIT or lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament — and both coaches came to the same conclusion. They’d rather be in New York playing for the NIT title.
“I think for me right now, it's playing in the NIT and trying to cut down some nets," Chambers said after Tuesday night's win. "That's going to be a huge steppingstone for us."
Krystkowiak and Chambers both talked about the experiences and opportunities to compete by making a run to the NIT championship. Krystkowiak appreciates the history of the tournament.
“I got an email from Arnie Ferrin, who played on Utah’s team in 1947 when they won the NIT championship,” Krystkowiak said Wednesday. “There’s still three living members of that team, and we were all on a big thread. When he says to me, ‘Coach, one more, man. Bring home a trophy.’ The pride in all of that, to me, that is so much more significant than getting to the NCAA tournament and losing your first game.”
The Utah coach knows that may not be the popular answer.
“If people want to run me out of town for that answer,” he said. “I guess I’m going to live with it. But they’re not in our shoes and this has just been a great experience for us, and I don’t think we’d trade it for anything in the world.”
'The prototypical Big Ten player'
Carr wasn’t the only Penn State player to catch Krystkowiak’s attention — the coach noted forward Lamar Stevens has been playing as well as anyone for the Nittany Lions in the NIT.
“He’s kind of the prototypical Big Ten player that you think of,” the Utah coach said. “When I walked out on that court last night and was watching the game, it looked like the NBA-style team. There’s some big bodies. They spend a lot of time in the weight room.”
Stevens had 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists against Mississippi State. The all-around performance followed a 30-point effort against Marquette.
“The Lamar Stevens I think we all want to see is the one from last night. He was really efficient — 17 points, eight rebounds, six assists — took care of the basketball, played very good defense,” Chambers said. “If we can bottle that up, I mean we can really move Lamar around. Now he’s a real perimeter threat.”