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Penn State Basketball

Smeltzer: Jalen Pickett Could Will Penn State to the Dance

Penn State star Jalen Pickett
Photo by Penn State Athletics

Penn State stud Jalen Pickett is the type of player who can carry a basketball team.

He’s been Penn State’s top guy all season.

On Tuesday, he played the game of his life. 

Pickett scored 41 points, the first time since 1961– more than five years before Joe Paterno’s first game as head football coach—that a PSU player scored 40 or more. He made 15 of 20 field goals, five of nine 3-pointers and all six free throws, adding eight assists.

Most importantly, PSU won a game it desperately needed to win. It beat Illinois 93-81 and kept its dim NCAA Tournament hopes alive. 

Before the Illinois game, Penn State had lost four in a row and five of its last six. The slide knocked Penn State out of NCAA Tournament consideration for many, including ESPN’s Bracketologist Joe Lunardi. Even after the Illinois win, PSU still needs to play itself back into the mix. 

Now, PSU has some good players along with Pickett. Seth Lundy might be an NBA Draft pick this summer. Andrew Funk is one of the Big Ten’s best shooters. Those guys will have to be on for Penn State to make things happen. 

But if Penn State is going to make the NCAA Tournament, Pickett will have to be the man.

Because there are only five players on the court at a time, one great player can make more of a difference in basketball than in sports such as baseball and football. Pickett is a great player.

Although this Penn State team has flaws—such as the lack of an established inside presence—the team also a star. We’ve seen stars carry units to unexpected heights before. Think Gerry McNamara willing Syracuse to the Big East Tournament Championship in March of 2006.

Think Kemba Walker leading a seemingly ordinary UConn bunch to both the Big East and national championships five years later. With all due respect to Penn State’s other key contributors, if Penn State is going to get hot and make the tournament, Pickett is going to be the main reason.

People knew Pickett was a stud before the Illinois game. But if Penn State is to go dancing, everybody who reflects on the journey will think of that night. In particular, they’ll think of Pickett’s performance, as when everything started to go right. Penn State has five more regular-season games, plus the Big Ten Tournament, and it’s unlikely that Pickett will break 40 in any of them. There’s a reason it took more than 60 years for a Penn State player to accomplish that feat. But Pickett doesn’t have to score 40 to carry Penn State.

He leads the Big Ten in assists and is fourth in the country, averaging seven a game. Pickett also leads the team in rebounding, averaging 7.4 as a point guard. Pickett won’t win Big Ten Player of the Year—that will go to Purdue’s 7-foot-4 beast Zach Edey, who is also a good bet to win National Player of the Year Honors. But Pickett is one of the best players in not just the conference but the country and is likely to be a first-team All-Big Ten performer and could find himself on an All-America team at the end of the year.Penn State basketball doesn’t get players like Pickett often.

That’s a big reason it’s only made the NCAA Tournament twice in this millennium. After this season, Pickett will be gone, and fans will remember him as a great player no matter what happens over the next few weeks. But if Penn State doesn’t stay hot and the Illinois game proves to be just a flash, the team won’t make it to the NCAA Tournament, and if Penn State doesn’t make it to the tournament, people who don’t follow the Big Ten won’t get to see what Pickett can do.

That’s a shame because Pickett makes magic on the court, and that magic deserves to be seen by the masses.

Nobody should cry for the team if Penn State doesn’t make it. Penn State’s had chances to go on a hot streak in the Big Ten and has yet to do it. The team has itself to blame for that, and that’s why the NCAA Tournament is still a long shot for now.

But Pickett deserves to dance.

I don’t think Penn State will make it to the NCAA Tournament. Before Tuesday, most justifiably saw the team as dead in the water. Winning one game won’t get Penn State out of that hole. There are five games left, plus the Big Ten Tournament, and I’m skeptical that a team that’s only won two in a row once in conference play can go on the hot streak required to make it.

But I wouldn’t be shocked if Penn State pulled it off.

Jalen Pickett is just that good. 

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