Penn State men’s basketball has made no secret about its primary goal for this season.
It’s been said at Big Ten Media Day last week, the Big Ten Network Tailgate Show on Saturday, over social media and to fans, alumni and recruits — the Nittany Lions have their sights on their first NCAA tournament berth since 2011.
Penn State fell just short of that goal last season, but finished with 26 wins, the second-most in program history, and a National Invitation Tournament title.
But for all the hype and talk about “The Climb,” the departure of Tony Carr to the NBA Draft and graduations of Shep Garner and Julian Moore do leave behind some big shoes to fill.
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“We want to make the NCAA tournament — there’s no secret about that,” head coach Patrick Chambers said. “The challenge is to stay present and get that 1 percent better every day. And if we can stay present and limit distractions, then I think we have a really good chance of being a successful team. But if we get ahead of ourselves and we’re reading our headlines and relying on last year’s successes, then we’re going to stub our toe more than a few times.”
Chambers spoke with confidence Tuesday at Penn State’s men’s basketball media day, fielding questions about how his team will build off of the momentum of last season, fill in those shoes and ultimately reach their goal, without hesitation.
Here’s what we learned:
The core of this season’s team, Chambers said, comes from the leadership of captains senior Josh Reaves, junior Lamar Stevens and sophomore John Harrar — all forwards.
“You can never replace a Tony Carr, for what he did for this program, I mean he put us on the map and laid the foundation, same thing with Shep,” Chambers said. “It’s got to be a collective effort, but our front line is our strength. It’s going to be a little bit different, but I think these guys are up for the challenge.”
For Stevens, this season marks the first since before his Roman Catholic days that he’s preparing for a season without Carr by his side. Although he said it’s weird not having his friend around, he hasn’t noticed much of a difference on the court.
“I’ve played with Tony for the majority part of my life, but you know, we have such a great team, it’s hard for me to say there’s been a huge difference,” Stevens said. “Everybody’s so coachable and everybody’s so together and looking really to get better every day. We have a really talented team, so it hasn’t really been too much of a difference.”
For his own part, Stevens has stepped up his leadership role — in point production as well as in the locker room — after his MVP-earning performance in the NIT, in which he scored 96 points over five games, including a game-best 28 in the final, his coach said.
Stevens stuck around for both summer sessions during the offseason, and attended Elite Nike Basketball Academy, one of just four Nittany Lions in the past seven years to be invited to an elite camp.
“When Lamar was a freshman, everything was on him and Tony to get things done, to score, to do it all. And now, he can take those words of wisdom, that knowledge of what he went through, those experiences and pass them down to these freshmen,” Chambers said. “And the good thing about these freshmen, is that they don’t have the pressure on them like Lamar and Tony did.”
A key player taking the pressure off the newcomers is last season’s Big Ten All-Defensive Team honoree Reaves. Last season, Reaves led the Big Ten in steals with 74 and steals per game at 2.18 for the second straight year.
Harrar was out for most of last season with an injury, but proved vital in the NIT and Big Ten tournaments, averaging 7.4 rebounds in five postseason games.
Having that much talent in the front three has made the Nittany Lions work to come up with more creative ways to score and get the ball in those players’ hands.
“Lamar has really focused on his defense this preseason, he wants to be that guy who can cover 1-5, and that’s very exciting to me. And John’s as solid as they come. If we can get some turnovers, much like we did last year, and get out and run, well, that’s easy baskets for some of those ’so-called defensive guys.’”
Chambers also touched on his other veteran forward, junior Mike Watkins, who had recently been arrested for his fourth time since wearing blue and white. This time, it was for disorderly conduct at a McDonald’s. Watkins was reportedly injured and was not available for comments.
Prior to when the situation was brought up, Chambers called the junior “our attitude king” and praised him for his work in practice. When pressed further on the subject, Chambers said: “We’re trying to help and guide, we’re trying to give the kid a chance. Let us do our due diligence, let us give the kid a chance. If not, he’s going to wind up back on the streets.”
Watkins was also named last season to the Big Ten All-Defensive team.
Wheeler stepping up
“Confident” and “cocky,” sophomore Jamari Wheeler, Chambers says, is everything one could want in a point guard.
“He steps on the floor and does not — how do I say this nicely — shut up, which is a good thing,” Chambers said. “You want that. That’s your point guard. He and I need to be an extension of each other, and you want your point guard to nonstop talk and help these guys out, push these freshmen to get better, and that’s what he’s doing.”
For Wheeler, Chambers said those extra postseason games and practices really helped get him some more touches on the ball and prepare him for what he needs to do this season to step into the position vacated by Carr.
“Jamari has grown a new level of confidence in his own game, and takes pride in what he does really well,” Stevens said. “There hasn’t really been much of a difference, we’ve known what Jamari can bring. We’ve played with him at practice and in games last year, and he’s taking pride in what he does really well. He’s doing a great job of making everybody better, as a point guard, and has been getting confident in his shot. So it’s been a pretty easy transition.”
Wheeler said the transition has been pretty easy for him, as well, as being a leader is something that comes naturally to him.
“I just talk to my team, try to take control of my team, communicate, push players and just get better every day in practice,” he said.
Although Reaves said he has noticed Wheeler being “louder” and “more communicative,” he has always brought a contagious energy with him.
“Even this summer during workouts and stuff, he’s been pushing everybody to be their best,” Reaves said. “I’ve always said he’s really annoying, because he just brings so much energy, even at 5:30 in the morning, you can always tell when Jamari is in the room, you can always tell when Jamari’s coming to the door. He’s always been that person. He’s always going to be that person who’s going to try to push everybody to be better. “
With the front three positions and point guard pretty much set for the start of the season, Chambers said there’s still one open guard position he’s looking to fill, and right now it’s a “dogfight” between the crop of freshmen — Myreon Jones, Myles Dread, Rasir Bolton, Danil Kasatkin and Kyle McCloskey.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Chambers said about looking for that fifth man. “It’s exciting. It shows growth and development in our youth, and in veterans coming off the bench.”
The intensity of the battle for that fifth spot has been felt by all on the team.
“All the freshmen are already really competitive. When they step on the court, they’re all fighting for something, and they all know it,” Reaves said. “They are all fighting for a spot to play more minutes or get an extra minute here or there, but they’re very, very competitive and they’re really showing up every single day and sacrificing their bodies trying to take charge, diving on the floor, doing anything to show that they are a tough-minded player, they are tough physically, they are a Penn State basketball player and can contribute.”
Stevens added: “They’re all hungry for that spot. And you can just tell. They all work their butts off every day, whether it’s before practice, after practice, in the morning, they’re all in here nonstop and that battle’s been intense, and it’s really great to see they’re really hungry and wanting to step into that role.
“I think all of them are capable and all of them are really confident. Whatever one ends up getting that spot, they’re all going to be great, off the bench, starting, I don’t think it’s really that big of a deal, but they’re talented, I can see.”
For Myles Dread, the 2018 Gatorade Player of the Year for Washington, D.C., and a poet who recites “Invictus” every day before he steps on the court, the competition isn’t as much of a “dogfight” as it is a way to make each other better.
“We’re just competing every day and playing as hard as we can. The biggest thing is, we’re going as friends, living together, being with each other all the time. We’re getting really close and I’m grateful to have those guys with me,” Dread said. “It’s not really that much of a dogfight, it’s not like every time we talk about basketball we talk about who’s going to get that starting spot. It’s more so we just want to be the best basketball players we can possibly be.”
By pushing each other, the emerging freshmen have also impressed their point guard.
“I think we got the best freshmen class in the Big Ten,” Wheeler said. “They really compete. They pick up, they shoot, their IQ is really high.”
Wheeler took a moment to point over at Dread, who was sitting next to him.
“He’s good. He shoots the ball really, really well. “
When asked about 3-point-shooting abilities, Chambers mentioned Dread and Bolton specifically, but said all the freshmen have been shooting about 40 percent in practice from behind the arc.
“At the end of the day, a starting spot or coming off the bench, it doesn’t really matter to me. I’m just here to try to help the team win games,” Bolton said.