Penn State Basketball

Penn State men’s basketball: Talented freshman class ready for season to begin

Penn State freshman Josh Reaves talks with reporters during men’s basketball media day on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015.
Penn State freshman Josh Reaves talks with reporters during men’s basketball media day on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015. CDT photo

Shep Garner tells Penn State’s three freshmen to enjoy the process every day.

He also tells them that process will be hard. Garner went through it a year ago, starting 33 of 34 games and finishing second on the team in scoring as a freshman.

He had high points, scoring in double figures in each of the first five games and pouring in a season-high 19 points in a Big Ten tournament win over Nebraska. And he had low points, struggling to find his 3-point stroke at times and needing to be “reeled in” a little bit by coach Patrick Chambers on his attempts from well beyond the arc.

Chambers said those experiences will help Garner in his sophomore season. They’ll also be helpful to the highly touted recruiting class made up of freshmen Josh Reaves, Mike Watkins and Deividas “Davis” Zemgulis.

“You’re gonna have your ups and downs as a freshman,” Garner said at Penn State’s media day on Tuesday. “But keep getting in the gym and go hard every day, get up extra shots, do extra things when you’re a freshman because you’re gonna have your little roller coaster moments and you got to believe in the process.”

The Nittany Lions will start practice Wednesday and open the season Nov. 14 against VMI at the Bryce Jordan Center. Penn State lost leading scorer D.J. Newbill and leading rebounder Ross Travis to graduation, and guard Geno Thorpe transferred to South Florida after the Nittany Lions went 18-16 last year. The Nittany Lions signed a talented recruiting class — ranked 44th in the country by 247Sports — last November. Reaves, Watkins and Zemgulis are now preparing for their first season.

“Obviously there’s going to be a lot of pressure on these young kids because of that — being the best class that we brought in so far,” Chambers said. “But they’re working hard, they’re into our culture, they’re listening to our veterans, they’re competing at a high level, they’re making mistakes and they’re being coachable.”

Reaves arrives as the top player in the class.

The 6-foot-4 guard from Oak Hill Academy was rated a four-star recruit and ranked 74th in the country by ESPN. Chambers said Reaves “looks terrific” and lives up to his billing, but said he will have to earn a starting spot.

“I’ve never said to a recruit and I never will say you’re gonna start if you come here,” Chambers said. “I think Josh respects that, and I think the team respects that. Josh has got to go out and take it.”

Chambers described Watkins, a 6-foot-8 forward from Philadelphia, as a strong shot blocker and rebounder. And the coach said Zemgulis, a 6-foot-6 forward, has knocked down his share of 3-pointers so far.

Watkins was a four-star recruit ranked 90th by ESPN, and Zemgulis was rated a three-star recruit by ESPN.

“It’s fun to watch and to see,” Chambers said. “They have a long way to go, a long way to go, but so far their attitude’s been great, their approach has been great and they have to continue that to see minutes.”

Chambers said Garner can help Reaves navigate the ups and downs of his freshman season.

“When the time comes and the season’s approaching a lot faster and we have our first scrimmage if things just don’t go as well,” Reaves said, “then I know I have somebody that I can go to for help.”

Reaves said workouts are harder, more competitive and physical at Penn State.

It’s been an adjustment for Watkins, too.

“Practicing with people that’s my height is actually something new to me, too,” Watkins said. “In high school, I was like the biggest kid around.”

As the freshmen go through more challenges throughout the season, Garner said he’ll be there to provide support.

“Whatever type of peak or whatever roller coaster they have,” Garner said, “I’ll be there for ’em to talk to. I’ll make sure they get through it.”

Offensive identity

Without a dominant scorer like Newbill, Chambers said his team will share the ball more this season.

“If we can share the ball and just really mix it up and put pressure on the paint and have a great inside-out type of team,” Chambers said, “I think that’s going to help everybody.”

Newbill led the Big Ten in scoring with 20.7 points per game a year ago.

Garner was second on the team with 9.2 points per game, and Brandon Taylor was third with 9.1 points per game. Thorpe, who transferred, was fourth in scoring with 8.7 points per game last season.

“You’re gonna see more of an open offense,” Taylor said. “No knock on D.J., he’s a great player and he was our best player, but we’re gonna have five guys in double figures and not just one.

Rule change

The shot clock was reduced from 35 seconds to 30 seconds during the offseason.

The NCAA announced the change in June in an attempt to “improve the pace of play.” The last time the shot clock was reduced, it was a 10-second change to 35 seconds for the 1993-94 season, according to the NCAA’s announcement.

Chambers said his team has worked with a 20-second shot clock during the summer.

“I feel like a lot of teams are going to give some token pressure this year, maybe play a little bit more zone this year,” Chambers said. “So we’ve been challenging our guys to play at our pace and not to panic and to get the best available shot.”

Leadership council

Chambers said Taylor, Garner, Reaves, Donovon Jack and Devin Foster make up the team’s leadership council.

It provides a mix of experience and youth with three seniors, a sophomore and a freshman.

“As a whole, those five guys have really led,” Chambers said, “and really taken ownership of the locker room, of the workouts, of the weight room, of the sand pits, of the hills, whatever we may be doing and they’re holding each other accountable, really getting after each other in a positive way but pushing each other.”

Scrimmage set

Chambers announced Penn State will have a Blue-White scrimmage on Saturday, Oct. 24 at the Altoona Field House. The coach said it will start at 1 p.m.

It will be free and include an autograph session.

“We’re just again, trying to move the needle,” Chambers said, “trying to do some different things, trying to move locations, where everybody can come out and be a part of Penn State basketball.”

Other roster additions

The Penn State roster includes two new faces besides the three true freshmen.

Connecticut transfer Terrence Samuel will sit out this season due to NCAA transfer rules. He will then have two years of eligibility left. Walk-on Sam Halle spent last season as a member of the Nittany Lions’ scout team, but he did not dress or travel. Halle, a junior, was a senior captain during the 2011-12 season for West Springfield (Va.) High School.