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Penn State Basketball

Smeltzer: Shrewsberry is Still the Right Guy, But…

Penn State Basketball Coach Micah Shrewsberry
ANN ARBOR, MI - JANUARY 04: Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Micah Shrewsberry reacts to an official’s call during the first half of a Big Ten conference regular season college basketball game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and the Michigan Wolverines on January 4, 2023 at the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire)

I believe Micah Shrewsberry  is still the right man to lead Penn State basketball. 

The guy’s resume speaks for itself. 

A program like Penn State won’t get many people who have coached in two national championship games, which Shrewsberry did at Butler, or coached for one of the NBA’s flagship franchises, which Shrewsberry did for four seasons with the Boston Celtics. 

The part of Shrewsberry’s path that Nittany Nation probably knows the most about is his time at Purdue, working under one of the country’s best and most respected coaches, Matt Painter.

Shrewsberry helps himself by being charismatic. That shows on the sidelines, where he’s been called the “Tasmanian Devil” for his intensity. It shows in the press room, where, at least in this reporter’s eyes, he an entertaining postgame interview. Whether he’s praising players like John Harrarlighting into his team as he did after an ugly loss at Rutgers last month, ripping officials as he did after a loss to Purdue or talking about Dr. Pepper, Shrewsberry isn’t dull, and that’s something both writers and fans can appreciate. 

Of course, what matters most is if Shrewsberry and his team get it done on the court. Right now, that’s not happening. The team has lost three in a row, four of five, and, for the moment, is off the NCAA Tournament bubble and looks to be NIT bound. Shrewsberry’s honeymoon period— a time where seemingly everybody loves or at least trusts the coach— isn’t fully over yet. I don’t think it’s fair to declare the honeymoon dead until after the season, what with there being so many knee-jerk reactions one way or the other throughout the year that opinions of any given team constantly change.

But Penn State doesn’t look good right now, and people are starting to get annoyed. 

Shrewsberry’s honeymoon period started with his hiring in March 2021. He didn’t come into a good situation. Penn State just came off a losing season with an interim coach after Patrick Chambers’s controversial exit. In a crazy offseason, seven players left the program through the transfer. Harrar and Seth Lundy entered the portal before deciding to stay.

For the reasons mentioned above, Shrewsberry was a popular hire. He stayed popular for his whole first season. Despite having to superglue a team together with transfers, the team was competitive and, at times, quality under Shrewsberry in his first season, even winning two Big Ten Tournament games before ending with a 14-17 record. 

With a sense of optimism and stability around the program in Year 2, people expected the “Shrews Crew” to do big things this winter. Maybe, Penn State would be good enough to dance for the first time since 2011. The bar had been raised, and another 14-17 finish wasn’t going to cut it.

The season is 24 games old, and much of that optimism has dissipated. 

Penn State’s 14-10 overall, which is okay for Penn State basketball. But losing three straight and four of five isn’t good, and neither is a 5-8 Big Ten record. In a little more than a week, Penn State’s gone from a projected tournament team to not even on the bubble, and that’s a depressing thing for people to handle. It’s incredibly disheartening for, of course, those within the program but also members of a fanbase that, unless they’re in at least their late 20s, only have a good recollection of, at most, one March in which Penn State was part of the Madness. The school has been to the tournament twice this millennium (2001, 2011) and hasn’t won a tournament game in almost 22 years.

One could argue that these facts make what’s happening this year somewhat tolerable. 

Some Penn State fans would ask other Penn State fans what they expected. After all, the team rarely makes it to the tournament, so some would make the case, with some merit, that any Penn State fan who invests a certain amount of energy into the team is just setting themself up for disappointment. I’d never tell a sports fan not to be upset after one of their teams drops a heartbreaker or has a poor run of form– both of which apply to Penn State. But, again, two NCAA Tournament trips in the millennium speak for themselves. 

Sure, there was optimism around the program. The team had Lundy and Jalen Pickett coming back. Penn State added two 1,000-point scorers from the transfer portal, Bucknell’s Andrew Funk and Drexel’s Cam Wynter, and the school also brought in its highest-rated recruiting class ever.

All of this led to talk about Shrews getting Penn State to the dance in Year 2. But making the tournament was still more of a hope than an expectation for Nittany Nation. Media who picked Penn State to go dancing before the season were likely doing so knowing full well that Penn State might not make it. 

So, should Penn State be an NCAA Tournament team this year based on its talent? With obvious strengths and glaring flaws, one could make a case either way. But the standard is undoubtedly much higher for Penn State in Year 2 of the Shrewsberry era, and it should be. 

Penn State has one of the best players in the country in Pickett. He’s the one who makes everything go and the type of all-around star Penn State doesn’t get often. Pickett’s supporting cast was never going to challenge Purdue for the Big Ten championship, but it’s hardly a group of schmucks. Lundy is one of the Big Ten’s best defenders and averages around 15 points per game. That’s a pretty damn good second-in-command. Funk averages around 13 a game and leads the Big Ten in made 3-pointers. Pickett, Lundy and Funk are all capable, and they’re all experienced. Pickett and Funk are in their fifth years, Lundy is in his fourth, and those three make up the nucleus of what is, according to KenPom.com, college basketball’s most experienced team. 

Penn State also has a 1,000-point scorer coming off the bench in Myles Dread, and Mikey Henn, who was an unsung hero in Penn State’s win over last month Michigan

Overall, Penn State has a star in Pickett, four 1,000-point scorers in addition to him, and, in wins over IndianaIllinois and Michigan, have shown what it could be by playing sublime basketball. So who is to fault anybody for wanting more and starting to get critical of the team and its coach for not getting more?

Who knows, maybe Penn State will get hot and makes some noise this year. There are still seven games left, plus the Big Ten Tournament, and many crazy things can happen. But if Penn State doesn’t right the ship this season, patience will be thin, and the overall feel of the program will be more negative than it was last month.

I think the honeymoon period is still going on. Most of this fanbase still sees Shrewsberry as the right guy for the job, and among those that don’t are people that think that Penn State basketball will be lousy regardless of who is the coach. But if Shrewsberry’s Lion don’t turn it around this season, the honeymoon will officially be done.

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