Penn State dropped their third game in a row for the second time this season when they lost to Minnesota over the weekend. The Lions ran into the red-hot Gophers and didn't play nearly well enough to pull off a huge road win. Instead, they got down by double-digits at the half and couldn't mount a serious comeback in the second half. It was not an unexpected result, but disheartening nonetheless.
This team is down to their final chances for NIT redemption. Here are some takeaways for the Nittany Lions as they head into the last week of the regular season.
Mike Watkins is Indispensable
The Lions couldn't compete with the Gophers for stretches, because they held a distinct advantage inside whenever Mike Watkins was out of the game. As I noted on twitter, Watkins was +15 in his 16 minutes of action, but the Lions were -25 without him on the floor. The turning point was Watkins' second foul at 10:28 in the first half, when the Nittany Lions were leading 13-11. After Watkins was auto-benched for the rest of the half, Penn State went into the break down 39-28.
Some people have asked me where does Satchel Pierce fit into next year's team. This game would be a perfect example. Julian Moore has limitations, and the Lions needed to try something different to counter the Gophers' length on the offensive glass. Pierce will have his chance to earn key minutes next season, but it will be in relief of Mike Watkins.
Garner Shooting Woes Continue
One of the easiest targets for fan frustration this season has been Shep Garner. The junior has not had a good scoring season, when many, including myself, thought his move off the ball would only help his efficiency. It hasn't. The maddening shot selection continues to be his forte, but the results have fallen far short in conference play. After a 4-17 performance against Minnesota, Garner's shooting just 40 percent on his twos and 32 percent on his threes in Big Ten play.
That's a shame, because Garner has played his tail off despite his scoring woes. He's grown tremendously as a perimeter defender and offered his best Josh Reaves impersonation with four steals and a career-high eight rebounds against the Gophers. In my opinion, that's a tremendous display of leadership when you contribute in other areas when your shot isn't falling. But his shot is the primary contribution that's needed for this team, so I get the criticism.
Carr is the Young Pope
This has flown under the radar because the team isn't winning, but Tony Carr has really turned it on down the stretch and is playing his best basketball of the season. He's found his groove by using his height over smaller defenders, and we're finally seeing his two-point percentage start to rise.
In February, Carr is shooting an impressive 52.7 percent on two-point shots compared to his 35.7 percentage through the first three months of the season. The improvement is akin to Talor Battle's freshman year, when the program's eventual all-time leading scorer couldn't hit the broad side of a barn at the start of his career. You just knew the talent level did not match either player's paltry percentages in their freshman seasons, but we're witnessing the Young Pope's development right before our eyes. Carr has averaged 17.8 points, 5.4 assists, and 3.6 rebounds in his last eight games.
NIT Hopes on Life Support
Well, this team finally has their backs against the wall, because it's now or never to rewrite the final story of this season. This year has been a series of what ifs, when you account for the numerous close losses to Michigan, Indiana, Rutgers, and Purdue. The narrative will be how the Nittany Lions fell short of their NIT goal, because the team, and its embattled coach, couldn't get the job done in so many tight games.
In order to flip that script, Penn State will need to win their next three games in a row. The Lions face two "must wins" against Ohio State at home on Tuesday and Iowa on the road on Sunday. Winning both of those games will put PSU back over .500 with a 16-15, 8-10 record. They'll be in the NIT picture in that scenario, but one more loss prior to the Big Ten tournament will seal their fate barring a miracle in Washington, D.C.