Penn State men’s basketball is back.
Following informal workouts throughout the summer, 10 practices and a foreign tour of two games in the Bahamas in August, head coach Patrick Chambers and the Nittany Lions returned to the Bryce Jordan Center hardwood for the start of preseason practices Monday afternoon.
In the aftermath of season of equal parts excitement and disappointment, knocking off the likes of Michigan State, Minnesota and Maryland in the Big Ten but finishing just 6-12 in the conference, 15-18 overall, and holding a 1-6 record in regular season games decided by a single possession or in overtime, Chambers and the Nittany Lions are anxious for a redeeming run.
“We understand now what it takes. The team and the guys understand what it takes to win in the Big Ten,” said Chambers in an exclusive interview with Blue White Illustrated. “You gotta be consistent and you gotta be at your best every single night, and if you're not at your best you're going to get beat. So we have to be our best and then beat the best teams in this league, which we showed we can.
“We're right there, we just couldn't finish it. So I think from those experiences, from the offseason that we had, we had a great summer in the weight room, our guys were here both summer sessions, the ten practices, the pros coming back, the couple games, I think that puts us ahead, and to gain our identity back, we gotta focus on that defensive side. But so many things that we learned from last year can help us. You learn from failure, right? So we're going to learn from failure and we're going to utilize it to our strengths this year.”
Leading the way for the Nittany Lions on the hardwood will be point guard Tony Carr, who returns following a freshman campaign in which he earned all-conference honorable mention and a spot on the All-Freshman Big Ten team. He led all Penn State scorers with 13.2 points per game in 32.8 minutes to go along with a team high 139 assists on the year (4.2 per game).
Joined by fellow freshmen from the 2016-17 season Lamar Stevens, Nazeer Bostick and Redshirt Mike Watkins, the Lions have a young core returning to a group of veterans that include seniors Shep Garner and Julian Moore, plus Josh Reaves and Davis Zemgulis. Moore is coming off offseason surgery and is not yet practicing full-time with the team but has been working back and is expected to be a veteran leader for the otherwise young group of Penn State forwards.
Newcomers Trent Buttrick, John Harrarr and transfer Satchel Pierce bolster the Lions’ bigs, and Jamari Wheeler provides depth for the Lions at point guard.
According to Chambers, all of the Lion newcomers will have an opportunity to make contributions this season - and already have had a serious impact with their work ethic in practice. Still, it’s been Wheeler who has especially caught Chambers’ eye through offseason practices and workouts.
“I think the kid has the chance to be the most exciting player, Tim Frazier-like in terms of speed. Just one of the toughest kids I've ever been around. He's so competitive. Again, MVP, put up 30-some points in games,” said Chambers. “He's going at Tony Carr like he's the little pit bull that's just going to be gnawing at you constantly. I think in the end it's going to be the best thing for Tony because Jamari is really, really going to push him. He's an exciting player to watch.”
Entering his seventh season as Penn State’s head coach, expectations for Chambers are not without some level of pressure this year.
Owning an 87-109 overall record in his six seasons with the Nittany Lions, Chambers’ trajectory that saw an unexpected 7-11 conference record during the 2015-16 season took an admitted step back overall last season. Determined to foster the program’s continued development this season, Chambers credits athletic director Sandy Barbour and president Eric Barron for their continued support, but also acknowledges the pressure he places internally on himself.
Looking forward to the development of the team, the progress of its players and the progress of his staff, Chambers said noting the addition of veteran coach Jim Ferry this offseason, he also acknowledged a change in his perception moving forward.
“My thing this year is joy. I'm going to find so much joy and excitement. This isn't going to be a relief for me this year,” he said. “Sometimes when you win, it's a relief. Not me. I'm going to enjoy the successes, I'm going to enjoy the wins. I'm excited about the group we have.
“The word for me is joy this season because I can't worry about what I can't control. I can only worry about my preparation and what I do for this team and how I prepare them to compete and get better and play every single night in the Big Ten. And I know I'm going to do that. So if I know I do that and the experiences that we had from last year, I think we're going to find a lot of success this year. The expectations should be where they are.”
The Lions season will begin with an exhibition against Bloomsburg on Nov. 5, followed by the first game of the season on Friday, Nov. 10 when they’ll host Campbell at the Bryce Jordan Center.