Penn State Showcases Blue-Collar Mentality, Defensive Potential in Season Opener
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Pat Chambers could point to one play on Tuesday night that epitomized his team’s identity in its season-opening 84-46 victory over Maryland Eastern Shore.
With just over 10 minutes left to play in the second half, Penn State had built an insurmountable 64-24 lead. The Hawks forced a turnover at the top of the key, and waiting at the other end of the court for an easy layup was Kevon Voyles. At least that’s what everyone in the Bryce Jordan Center thought, but Jamari Wheeler had other plans.
From the opposite baseline, Wheeler bolted down the court and stripped the ball from Voyles, sending it out of bounds, making for the most impressive defensive play of the night in a game that Penn State allowed just 46 points, the fewest ever in nine season openers under Chambers.
“That’s what I cherish and I think that’s what our team cherishes,” Chambers said. “That’s Penn State basketball at its best… You play one way and compete hard every possession to develop the best habits we can.”
Wheeler’s block was the exclamation point on a dominant defensive performance and a preview of what could be the best defensive team that Chambers has had in nine seasons at Penn State.
Penn State forced 19 turnovers, blocked 11 shots, including seven from Mike Watkins, and held the Hawks to 33.3% shooting.
However, those numbers may not be sustainable throughout a full season and are likely inflated by playing a rebuilding program with eight new players and a rookie head coach in Jason Crofton, who coached with Chambers as an assistant at Villanova at the beginning of his career.
“Very tough opponent in Penn State,” Crofton said. “I’ve known Pat Chambers for a long time… What he’s doing here is what we’re trying to build at Maryland Eastern Shore: a blue-collar basketball program that plays hard for 40 minutes.”
This year’s Penn State team is the most experienced that Chambers has had. With more depth than in previous years, Penn State showcased frequent three-quarter-court pressure that wreaked havoc all night and experienced little drop off when Chambers made substitutions.
“We’re able to plug guys in and keep playing our three-quarter-court press,” Chambers said. “They’re so long, they’re bigger, they’re stronger… We’re not putting freshmen and sophomores in, we’re putting experienced guys in with Lamar [Stevens] and Mike anchoring the back.”
It was only the first game of the season, but Tuesday night featured a particularly resurgent performance from Watkins, who played just 14 games last season due to a knee injury. Chambers said all preseason that Watkins looked completely healthy again, and that was on full display on Tuesday. Watkins returned to being a defensive force in the paint and even flashed an improved offensive skill set. Watjubs looked more polished in the low post and even buried a short turnaround baseline jumper in the first half.
“He’s in a good space right now,” Chambers said. “His energy level, his second jump—it’s just refreshing to see… He’s happy to be on the floor, he’s happy to be with his teammates, and he wants to do something special.”
The defensive dominance wasn’t a complete shock to most, but what has many people believing that Penn State could reach its first NCAA Tournament since 2011 is the improvements on the other end of the court.
The Nittany Lions still remain very much a work in progress offensively. At times, they struggled to generate open shots in the half court, and they committed 15 turnovers. Consistent perimeter shooting outside of Myles Dread looks like it will be a question all season.
But having six players score in double figures for the first time since Nov. 20, 2017, and connecting on 12 3-pointers is a sign of emerging secondary options to complement Lamar Stevens. Dread made 5 of 6 3’s while Oklahoma State transfer Curtis Jones, Myreon Jones and Stevens each made two of their own.
“When it’s all said and done, I think we’re going to be one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the Big Ten,” Chambers said. “Obviously, Myles, I expect that from him. But I think Curtis, when he gets the rust off, I expect him to be right along with Myles. I think people don’t realize how good of a shooter Myreon Jones is… and Lamar has put in the work.”
Dread as a freshman last season was the best shooter on the roster and looked even more confident in his first game as a sophomore.
“This is the work that I put in during the summer,” Dread said. “I was a good 3-point shooter last year, and that’s what I did, but I didn’t want to stay at that same place. I wanted to get better, and that’s what I really focused on.”
Stevens throughout his career has been known for his smooth mid-range game, but if he can prove to be a threat beyond the arc, Penn State’s offense will take the next step forward and open up the paint for quick playmaking guards like Wheeler and Jones.
It was only the first game, and Penn State still has a long way to go, but Tuesday night proved to be a preview of an experienced, blue-collar squad with an improving offense that has a chance to be Chambers’ most dangerous team yet.
Will Desautelle is a senior majoring in journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.