Penn State basketball bubbles into relevance, but for how long?
Last weekend, Micah Shrewsberry, Penn State’s 2nd-year men’s basketball coach, spent a large portion of a postgame media session insisting he wasn’t very good at his job.
He was eating a crap sandwich in the wake of a brutal home loss to Rutgers on Sunday in which his Nittany Lions blew a 19-point 2nd-half lead and lost 59-56. The team’s all-around leader and top scorer, Jalen Pickett, didn’t attempt a single field goal in the final 20 minutes. Its 3-point assassin, Seth Lundy, shot 1-for-16 overall and 0-for-11 from downtown. Not exactly what a coach wants from a couple of key seniors.
It was a major buzz kill for a squad that actually had the Bryce Jordan Center rocking for a change. Instead of a 4th straight win, the Nittany Lions had a resume-damaging 12th loss. The Scarlet Knights were ripe for the taking, as Big Ten cellar dweller Minnesota proved with its 75-74 victory over them Thursday night.
“Steve Pikiell completely outcoached me,” Shrewsberry said in what might have been his lowest moment since arriving in State College. “He coached circles around me tonight. … I’ve got to put our guys in better position to be successful if we want to win a game like this.”
Frustrated fans were quick to affirm the 46-year-old coach’s self-assessment on social media.
But truth be told, the former Purdue assistant has ignited the imagination of long-suffering true PSU hoops fans and has casual followers tempted to jump on the bandwagon.
And he’ll get another chance to win them over when the Lions host No. 21 Maryland (20-10, 11-8) at noon Sunday on the final day of the B1G regular season. Win that game, and PSU will be darn close to securing its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2011.
After a gritty come-from-behind overtime road victory over upstart Northwestern on Wednesday, Penn State (18-12, 9-10) is right back on the NCAA bubble, 1 of the last 4 in as of Thursday night according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi.
Relying on the 3-ball and the craftiness of Pickett, a transfer from Siena in his 2nd and final year with the Lions, Penn State is prone to wild swings of hot and cold play. It makes the team both thrilling and agonizing to watch.
In its late start in Evanston on Wednesday, Penn State started ice cold. Even with Lundy driving for a dunk and banking in an ugly 3 on his first 2 attempts, the Lions trailed 17-7 after 12 ½ minutes. They coughed up the ball repeated, with several of the turnovers resulting from soft, telegraphed passes to the post.
After the break, though, Pickett started working in the paint and passing out of it. He finished with only 7 points but 11 assists. The ball swung with crisp passes, and Lundy cashed in with a 4-of-9 night from beyond the arc. (He didn’t have to call “glass” on the final 3 makes.) Fellow sharpshooter Andrew Funk, another key senior, also went 4-of-9 from downtown. Camren Wynter shot 4-of-5 on 3-balls — including the game-winner of the 68-65 victory — and finished with a team-high 21 points. Freshman Evan Mahaffey pulled down a huge offensive rebound to set up Wynter’s last-second shot.
So here we are. Penn State’s senior-laden team can bubble up to relevance with a victory over the Terps. The Lions lost just 74-68 at Maryland 3 weeks ago. Everyone in the B1G is beatable. After regular season champ Purdue, the next 11 teams are between 11-8 and 8-11 in league play.
This is a rare chance for Penn State. The program has made the NCAA Tournament only 9 times in its history, and just 4 times in the past 57 years. Get this done, and Shrewsberry can consider himself at least the equal of Pikiell. Fall short, though, and he’ll need to work some serious magic in recruiting and the transfer portal to earn another chance.
After this season, Pickett must see if his below-the-rim, old-man YMCA game can somehow translate to the NBA. The 6-4 guard has a triple-double and a 41-point game to his credit this season. He leads the team in points (18.1 per game), rebounds (7.3), assists (7.0), steals (0.9) and veteran savvy. Funk, Wynter, Myles Dread and Michael Henn will also be out of eligibility. That’s 47.1 of the team’s 72.6 points per game moving on. If Lundy doesn’t take his Covid bonus year, another 14.3 ppg will be out the door.
After a 14-17 first season, Shrewsberry pieced this year’s roster together with transfers from Bucknell (Funk), Drexel (Wynter) and Denver (Henn) joining 2021 transfer Pickett. Is finding gems from the lower echelons of Division I a sustainable strategy?
Next year’s recruiting class currently has 3 members — led by 6-9, 190-pound Carey Booth — and ranks 30th in the nation and 6th in the B1G according to 247sports’ composite rankings.
Penn State might not be back in this position for a while. The Lions likely need 2 more wins between the Maryland game and next week’s conference tournament to lock up a spot in the field of 68.
With Funk and Lundy ranking 1-2 in the B1G in 3-pointers made — and both hitting at better than 40% — Penn State has a puncher’s chance against Maryland or anyone else in the Big Ten.
That may not be true for the next couple of years, so Shrewsberry and his players can’t afford any more clunkers this season.