If Penn State is ever going to take men's basketball seriously, now is the time
Across social media, Penn Staters are posting and pontificating about the men’s basketball team. A program that has rarely generated enough buzz to budge a decibel meter suddenly is the talk not only of the town but of alumni spread across the country and the globe.
This is the rare year when the joke about Villanova being Penn State’s basketball team doesn’t work.
While 1st-year coach Kyle Neptune’s Wildcats were losing their NIT opener Tuesday night to Liberty, 2nd-year coach Micah Shrewsberry was prepping his Nittany Lions for an attempt to extend a run of giant-slaying that has felled the program’s biggest dragon: Penn State will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011 and just the 5th time since 1965.
Fans just getting acquainted with this team are having to make a quick study of 2nd-team All-American Jalen Pickett and his booty ball game, as well as the new and old key pieces surrounding him. The faithful are diverting some of their attention from spring football, Cael Sanderson’s wrestling juggernaut and the relatively new and certainly exciting men’s hockey program to check in on basketball.
How could they not? The Lions won 8 of 9 games to reach their 2nd B1G Tournament final before nearly toppling true giant Zach Edey and top seed Purdue. They were underdogs in all but 2 of those games, including every matchup in the conference tournament. They went from bubble team to 10-seed in the span of 4 days in Chicago.
Now they’re setting up shop in Des Moines, Iowa, for a late Thursday might meeting (9:55 p.m., TBS) with No. 7 seed Texas A&M, another traditional football school trying to prove its chops on the hardwood. The Lions are, no surprise, a 3.5-point underdog.
This melodramatic joy ride will end abruptly, whether against the Aggies (25-9, 17-4 SEC), No. 2 seed Texas in Round 2 or further down the line. Whenever this ends, Shrewsberry returns to Square 1 — perhaps pre-Square 1 — IF he stays.
So let’s toast these Lions while we can, and then we’ll touch on whether the program can keep its hot young coach and sustain this momentum.
Who are these guys?
Five of the top 8 players in the rotation are 1st-year Lions, 3 transfers and 2 freshmen. So you are forgiven if, like me, you are just getting acquainted with these guys. Introductions are in order (in my perceived order of importance):
Jalen Pickett, G, Sr.+ (6-4, 209): The Lions 1st All-American in decades leads the team in points, rebounds and assists. Averaging nearly 18, 7 and 7, there’s no player quite like him in D1. In his 2nd year since transferring from Siena, he makes the Lions go with a post-up game that facilitates his scoring and passing. He gives the offense unique advantages.
Seth Lundy, G-F, Sr. (6-6, 220): Can get his own shot, from downtown or slashing to the hoop. Has started more than 120 games since his freshman year of 2019-20. Has the option to return for a 5th season but probably won’t. Shot better than 50% from 3 over a 10-game stretch this season, which makes it all the more strange that he missed his final 17 attempts at the Bryce Jordan Center. He’s the team’s most likely NBA player based on his size, shooting and toughness. The squad’s emotional leader.
Andrew Funk, G, Sr.+ (6-5, 200): Funk is the team’s designated shooter. After 4 years at Bucknell, he’s handled the step up in class to rank No. 12 in the country in made 3s (112) while connecting at a better than 40% clip.
Camren Wynter, G, Sr.+ (6-2, 200): After 4 years at Drexel, he’s overcome a slow start to complement Pickett’s ballhandling and Funk’s shooting. He provided last-shot heroics to beat Northwestern (3-pointer in OT) and Maryland (rebound put-back) to close the regular season.
Myles Dread, G, Sr.+ (6-4, 235): Since arriving at PSU in 2018 and leading the team in 3s as a freshman, Dread has brought toughness and tenacity on a consistent basis. Doing it now as a 6th man to ease up on the mileage wear and tear, he still hits huge 3s and takes on any defensive assignment. A major luxury off the bench.
Kebba Njie, F, Fr. (6-10, 237): Many college teams don’t bother listing centers anymore, just forwards. But Njie is the Lions’ starting center, and is showing promise. That said, he’s not a major piece this year, getting less than 15 minutes per game and averaging 3.4 points and 3.6 rebounds. He did grab 9 boards in a season-high 26 minutes Saturday against Trayce Jackson-Davis and Indiana.
Michael Henn, F, Sr.+ (6-8, 244): Provides 3-point shooting (43.3%) and a big body to battle the Edeys of the world. Brings experience from stops at UC Davis, Cal Baptist, Portland and Denver over 7 seasons. Yes, he’s been a college student since 2016.
Kanye Clary, G, Fr. (5-11, 192): Jitterbug-quick freshman sometimes provides a spark off the bench. He’ll have a huge role next season.
Why is this working?
When mid-major teams make NCAA runs, most often they do so with senior-laden teams. Though it plays in a Power 5 conference, Penn State is that type of team. Six of the top 8 players in the rotation are seniors, and only Lundy has the option to return. And even though 3 of those 6 seniors are first-year Lions, the group has coalesced and plays with collective veteran guile and savvy.
On offense, backdowns by Pickett, hard screens and extra passes create the open looks that make Penn State the country’s No. 13 team in 3-point percentage. The Lions take (27.0/game, 13th) and make (10.4/game, 6th) a lot of 3s, college basketball’s great equalizer.
On defense, it’s all about work. It has to be for a team that plays its main big man less than 15 minutes per game. The Lions help and recover, they close out strong on shooters, they team-rebound with old-school box-outs.
The team goes through rough patches. It doesn’t commit a lot of turnovers, but has spurts of sloppiness. Shooting dry spells can leave double-digit deficits.
On the other hand, when the Lions find their flow, they can play beautiful basketball on both ends of the court. Nothing is more satisfying for fans than when an extra pass or 2 leads to a rhythm 3 from Funk. Those are almost automatic. Won’t you take me to Funkytown? (It hasn’t been this popular since Lipps Inc.’s not-so-funky video in the 1980s.)
When games become a grind, Lundy can get his own shot anywhere on the court and Pickett can butt-bounce less-stout guards into the paint to set up his patented mid-range fadeaway.
That is to say, despite the reliance on 3s, this is not a finesse team. It’s a lunch pail team, personified by 6th-man Dread, a fullback in basketball shorts. The 5th-year Lion guards all positions, having bodied up the 7-4 Edey for a stretch in the B1G title game.
Though its margin for error isn’t huge, Penn State doesn’t have to play near-perfect ball to prevail. It missed a bunch of late free throws in B1G Tourney wins over Illinois and Northwestern but managed to hold on. A spate of late turnovers cost the Lions all but 1 point of a 15-point advantage over Indiana in the final 2 minutes of their league semifinal.
They seem to have mastered this survive and advance thing. They have seemed like the proverbial team of destiny since Wynter’s last-second tip-in to beat Maryland in the regular-season finale. They’ve won 8 of 10, the losses by 3 points to Rutgers and by 2 to Purdue. They can hang with anyone in the Big Ten, that’s for sure.
Tonight, we’ll see how they do against outside competition.
Will Shrewsberry stay?
Penn State’s 46-year-old 2nd-year coach projects humbleness. He’s the first to point out that his only head-coaching experience prior to Penn State came at tiny Indiana University South Bend, an NAIA school that went 3-28 and 12-20 in Shrewsberry’s 2 seasons there (2005-07).
But Shrewsberry isn’t that guy anymore. He knows the game, having spent multiple years under Brad Stevens at Butler and later with the Boston Celtics, and under Matt Painter at Purdue. He has X’s and O’s acumen, clearly knows how to put skillsets together, and seems to be mastering the interpersonal obligations inside the locker room and out.
He’s reportedly on the short lists for head coach at Georgetown and Notre Dame, teams with much more rich basketball history than Penn State.
So why would he stay? Well, because the B1G recently became the wealthiest conference in college athletics, and new AD Pat Kraft seems authentically to care about all the sports, not just football. He can make Shrewsberry an offer very hard to refuse, and basketball really could deliver a return on the investment.
The entire athletics vibe at Penn State seems to be on the upswing. The football team went 11-2 with a Rose Bowl win, and will start 2023 in the Top 10 with a slew of dynamic young players to root for. Sanderson has made PSU the center of the wrestling world. Alumni and boosters have ponied up to fund multiple NIL entities, allowing Penn State to compete in that arena.
Why not men’s basketball? Right now, Penn State looks like a better job than the one Patrick Ewing vacated at Georgetown. And it can be an even better job if Penn State cares to make it so.
Shrewsberry could be the first truly great basketball coach in Penn State history. The ball is in Pat Kraft’s hands.
What happens next year?
Success will not arrive over night — or over the course of the next calendar year. This season is a fluke, and won’t be repeated unless Shrewsberry again fishes the transfer portal pond and lands some more big ones. But recruiting has improved, and Shrewsberry will have a shot to build more sustainable success over the next few years.
Right now, though, the top returning players for 2023-24 are freshmen Njie, Clary and Evan Mahaffey, who average a combined 10 points per game. Carey Booth, son of former PSU and NBA big man Calvin Booth, leads the incoming recruiting class. The 6-9, 190-pound 4-star power forward ranks as the No. 71 player in the country, according to 247sports’ composite rankings. Overall, the class — which currently has 3 members — ranks 31st nationally and 6th in the Big Ten.
Shrewsberry likely will augment the roster with transfers again, but finding another Pickett won’t be easy. Back-to-back trips to the NCAAs for the first time since the 1950s probably isn’t in the cards.
Can PSU hoops work long-term?
This season’s 5-member recruiting class, led by the 4-star Njie, ranked 27th overall and 5th in the Big Ten. Next year’s group, as mentioned above, ranks 31st and 6th. No, that’s not the stuff NCAA titles are made of. But it is PSU’s best 2-year stretch of recruiting this century, and by a fairly wide margin. Keep that up, and sometime soon Penn State could become an NCAA Tournament regular.
This year, the community has shown up, with weekend crowds in the 10,000-12,000 range and weekday evening gatherings above 7,000. That’s totally reasonable for a school that requires at least a 90 minute drive of most of its fanbase. This isn’t a matter of taking the train to the Main Line in Philadelphia. Huge crowds are not the be-all and end-all anyway. Duke’s Cameron Indoor Arena holds 9,314 for basketball, which makes the Blue Devils a hot — an expensive — ticket. Penn State hoops tix will never command 4 figures, but Pennsylvania sports fanatics will embrace the game if given the chance — even in Centre County. Penn Staters love winners, whether they wrestle, play volleyball or fence.
How many people drive up over the mountains to watch in person is beside the point. Selling out the 15,261 seat BJC in not a necessity. The recent B1G media rights deal proves it’s all about drawing eyeballs to TV screens. Micah Shrewsberry can make that happen. I’m proof, tuning in down in North Carolina on cold winter evenings. My streaming service better have the Big Ten Network, that’s a key selling point. And not just because of football anymore.
This season is a treat. A team has come together seemingly out of nowhere. The thought that Penn State fans wouldn’t revel in this fun on a regular basis, year after year, is ridiculous.
This year proves that Penn Staters are invested. The question that remains: Are the powers that be at the university all in?