In many ways, the 2021-22 men’s basketball season will be a return to normalcy, with arenas filling again and atmosphere returning to college basketball. But there’s one key difference between this year and any previous year: almost everyone in the country is experienced.
Thanks to the NCAA’s decision to grant an extra year of eligibility to any athlete who wanted one, college basketball teams are more experienced than they’ve been in several years. And when it comes to experience, nobody in the Big Ten has more than Penn State.
The Nittany Lions have 11 players out of 15 who have spent at least three years in college, including three seniors and four “senior-pluses”, who opted to use the extra year. Only Drake and Chattanooga have more experience on their roster than Penn State, which has an average age of 21.61 heading into the season.
“To have your top nine guys be juniors and seniors, that’s something that you can build on,” first-year Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry said. “I was thrilled when I got here to have a guy like Myles Dread tell me that he’s coming back and a guy like Sam Sessoms tell me he’s staying. Then to get the fortunate opportunity to get John Harrar and coach him, get Seth Lundy back and be part of our team.
“That’s thrilling for me because I have a building block of guys that have been in the Big Ten, guys that have played in these full arenas and know what it takes to win in this league.”
The Nittany Lions didn’t win much last season, going 11-14 and 7-12 in the league to finish 11th, their lowest finish since 2017. But there are signs that things could be better this year in University Park, as Penn State was a lot closer to being a winning team than the record indicated.
Penn State lost seven games by either four points or less or in overtime, including the season finale in the Big Ten tournament against Wisconsin. Throw in that the Nittany Lions will be able to feed off fans this season as opposed to playing before less than 300 people at Bryce Jordan Center, and there are reasons for optimism in Happy Valley.
“I think the best basketball players get it from within themselves, but sometimes (last year), it felt like you were playing a pickup game out there,” Penn State forward John Harrar said. “The fans keep you in games, and I think having fans is good for the game and important as a player.”
Despite the experience advantage his team has on paper, Shrewsberry has downplayed it for two reasons. For one, most college basketball teams this year have a few senior-pluses on their roster, so the Nittany Lions’ age advantage might not necessarily translate to a huge edge on the court, especially as they get into Big Ten play.
For another, age and experience aren’t necessarily the same thing. While the Nittany Lions do have a wealth of experience playing the game, they’re also playing under their third coach in as many years, which can mean a completely different way of doing things.
“Even though we’re experienced, everybody is a freshman because they’re playing for me for the first time,” Shrewsberry said. “How we do things could be completely different. If you played five years of college basketball, I can be teaching you something in a completely different way.
“But to see how they’re learning, how they’re picking it up, you’re starting to see it. That’s growth for me every single day, and that gives me encouragement every day that what we’re teaching is getting through.”
If nothing else, this Penn State squad should be well-equipped to handle whatever adversity might come its way. With the Nittany Lions being just two years removed from a sixth-place finish in the league and what would have been a certain NCAA appearance, this team knows both the highs and lows that can come in a conference season and how to deal with them.
This team might have been a 7-12 squad in Big Ten play a year ago, but it’s also the team that won four of its final six games, including overcoming a 16-point deficit to ruin Maryland’s senior night and show that the Nittany Lions know how to handle difficult situations.
“Basketball has taught me everything about overcoming adversity,” senior Myles Dread said. “Whether it be you’re coming back from injury or you’re down 20 points at half, you’re never expected to be perfect. Overcoming adversity is part of the game; you’re going to miss shots and trip and fall. It’s about how much perseverance you have to get up and keep going.”