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Smeltzer: Penn State is NCAA Tournament Material

Micah Shrewsberry
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 09: Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Micah Shrewsberry on the sidelines during the menÕs Big Ten tournament college basketball game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and Minnesota Golden Gophers on March 9, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

Penn State fans are used to watching 68 teams that they don’t root for play in the NCAA Tournament.

In the tournament’s history that dates back to 1939, Penn State has played in it just nine times.

Five of those appearances happened before we put a man on the moon, and only two of them have happened in this millennium.

It’s not that Penn State hasn’t had good teams that didn’t make the tournament. The 2008-09 and 2017-18 squads won the NIT. The 2019-20 team was a lock for the tourney until COVID ruined everything.

The past two years, Penn State has been working to get back to where it was in 2020, when it rose to No. 9 in the country. The following season was chaotic for a number of reasons, from the raging pandemic to coach Pat Chambers stepping down a month before the season started.

Interim coach Jim Ferry did his best, but the team ended up finishing with a losing record.

Enter, Micah Shrewsberry.

Shrewsberry, who came over after 15 seasons of assisting Brad Stevens (Butler, Boston Celtics) and Matt Painter (Purdue), had a pretty darn good first year at Penn State. Although the 14-17 record didn’t show it, Penn State’s program made significant progress in Year 1 of the Shrewsberry era. Several players— including three starters— from the previous season transferred, and Shrewsberry had to put together a roster practically from scratch. But with the help of new Nittany Lions such as Jalen Pickett and the leadership of veteran Lion John Harrar, Penn State fielded a respectable team that ended up winning two Big Ten tournament games.

The bar is higher in Year 2, and so far, Shrewsberry and the Nittany Lions are meeting it.

Through six games, Penn State is 5-1, with its only loss being a two-point nail-biter to Virginia Tech, who is ranked No. 30 in KenPom.com’s Pomery Rankings.

Now, Penn State hasn’t exactly had a gauntlet to run through yet. But they haven’t had a schedule for of cupcakes, either. Penn State beat an established program in Butler, and beat Furman, who Pomery ranks No. 61. Penn State responded to its lone setback by beating Colorado State (No. 85) in the Charleston Classic’s consolation game.

Penn State has its flaws, sure. The team lacks an established post presence and has relied a lot on its outside shooting, which has been excellent thus far. Its fair to wonder what will happen when Penn State has a bad shooting night, which hasn’t happened yet. But most teams have flaws, and it’s unrealistic to expect a program that’s still figuring out how to be a winner to not have its kinks to work through. Right now, the positives are outweighing the negatives.

Penn State has a clear best player in Pickett.

Pickett is one of the best players in the Big Ten and the heartbeat of Penn State’s team, averaging 14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 7.5 assists. Pickett has a balanced game, and that was apparent in Penn State’s win over Butler Nov. 14, when he posted the second triple-double in program history (15 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists).

Penn State has some solid secondary pieces, as well. Next to Pickett, Andrew Funk and Seth Lundy are Penn State’s best offensive weapons. Funk, a Bucknell transfer, averages 11.8 points and scored a team-high 21 against Virginia Tech. Lundy, who has been with Penn State since that 2019-20 season that should have ended in an NCAA Tournament berth, also averages 11.8 points and scored 20 against Furman. Lundy is also Penn State’s best defense player. Pickett, Funk and Lundy are studs, and they’re experienced.

Talent and experience combined are great assets that help get teams to the big dance, and Penn State has both. Along with the aforementioned trio, Cam Wynter is a veteran contributor. Wynter, a transfer from Drexel, came into the season with 1,659 points. He hasn’t gotten consistently hot yet— he averages 9.3 points and has only scored in double-figures twice— but Wynter is an established scorer. Myles Dread is in his fifth year at Penn State. Dread’s averaging 9.5 points off the bench and is shooting 52.8% from 3.

Penn State’s experienced roster coincides with the second highest-rated recruiting class in program history (Shrewsberry’s 2023 Class is No. 1.) Potential studs such as former four-star big man Kebba Njie don’t need to be stars right away, and that’s a good thing. Penn State’s best players are veterans, and those veterans know all about the grind of a college basketball season, especially in February and March.

Hey, I understand being skeptical of this Penn State team. Penn State hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game in 21 years, so pessimism is expected and, to an extent, justified. But these Nittany Lions are good, and I think they’re good enough to dance.

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