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Smeltzer: Penn State Fans, Enjoy Pickett While you Can

Penn State Nittany Lions guard Jalen Pickett (22) January 21, 2023 David Hague/NSN

The No. 1 focus for Penn State basketball and its fans is whether or not the team will make the NCAA Tournament.

This has been the main goal all season, and has ramped up over the past month, which feels much longer.

For teams on the bubble, every day must feel like a year, and Penn State has been on the bubble for what feels like forever.

In the past week, dramatic wins at Northwestern and against Maryland at the Bryce Jordan Center have put Penn State on the right side of the bubble. Some feel that Penn State is already in the NCAA Tournament regardless of what happens in Thursday’s Big Ten Tournament opener against Illinois in Chicago.

For Penn State fans, this season has been wild. It’s the type of year that doesn’t happen much for Penn State basketball. The type of year the team and its fans don’t want to end.

But it has to end, and perhaps the saddest part about the season’s inevitable conclusion is that it will mean Jalen Pickett will never play for Penn State again.

I won’t go into too much detail about Pickett’s stats. If you’re a Penn State fan and aren’t familiar, that’s your problem. Pickett being Penn State’s first All-American since the Eisenhower administration speaks for itself.

The point of this column isn’t to break down Pickett’s stats or compare him to other great Penn State players.

The former has been discussed ad nausem and will continue to be talked about for at least another week. The latter has been talked about to a lesser extent and can be saved for another piece.

The purpose of this column is to implore Penn State fans to appreciate what they have with  Pickett.

People haven’t had much time to do that in general, and although every day in early March feels like a year for a bubble team, Pickett’s time as a Penn State player is running out. Over this season, his star has burned as bright as any in school history and brighter than most.

One of the beautiful aspects of Pickett’s season is that the man has produced not just great stats but memorable individual games. In early November, when most Penn State fans were still focused on football, Pickett posted the second triple-double in school history against Butler. In February, when more people were paying attention to Penn State basketball but bummed out over a three-game losing streak that made NCAA Tournament prospects dim at best, Pickett had one of the best games in school history, putting up 41 points and eight assists.

Those numbers don’t need context, but to add some anyway, no Penn State player had scored 40 or more points in a game since John F. Kennedy was president.

So, yeah, it was a good night.

And to say it’s been a good career for Pickett would be an understatement, and Penn State fans wish they could have experienced it for more than two seasons.

One of the only downsides of Pickett’s college run from a Penn State perspective is that he spent more of it playing somewhere else.

Pickett played three of his soon-to-be-five college seasons at Siena, so that already cut into fans’ time to appreciate the man. Last season, Pickett’s first at Penn State, he was a good player, averaging  13.3 points per game. But the team lost more than it won, and there wasn’t much about Pickett’s year that indicated that he’d become one of the best in Penn State history.

By the time we realized that, yes, Pickett was “HIM,” as the kids say, his Penn State run was months away from being done.

That’s a sad reality of modern college basketball.

We can debate the transfer portal somewhere else, but one of the undisputed aspects of it is that the more teams utilize the portal to reel in veterans, the less time fans have to fall in love with specific players, and that’s what happened with Pickett at Penn State.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

Pickett isn’t the only example of that on this team.

Soon, a fellow fifth-year senior, Cam Wynter, will be moving on. Wynter has hit the two biggest shots of Penn State’s season— last-second baskets at Northwestern and on Senior Day against Maryland— but his time at Penn State will amount to one year. Bucknell transfer Andrew Funk has also excited Penn State fans, doing so mainly with his 3-point shooting. Again, one year.

There are Penn State players that have spent their entire careers in State College, such as veterans Seth Lundy and Myles Dread, both of whom were recognized before Sunday’s game. But players like that are more rare than they used to be.

Players as good as Pickett have always been rare.

Whether it’s this year or not, Penn State will back in the NCAA Tournament one day. It might take awhile— Penn State hasn’t made it in almost 12 years— but it will happen.

And Penn State could well have a player like Pickett again. But don’t bank on it happening soon.

So although it’s perfectly natural for fans to be stressed about what might or might not happen over the next several days, they shouldn’t forget to enjoy this team, and, specifically, Pickett.

There will be other Penn State teams in the years ahead. But Pickett is going to be gone soon. So enjoy him while you can.

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