While it came against inferior competition, the Nittany Lions had a successful start to their season this past weekend, going 2-0 with wins over Campbell and Fairleigh Dickinson. They weren't pretty and perhaps not as dominant as they should've been, but this program has only started 2-0 in three of Pat Chambers' six seasons at the helm. They've never started 4-0 before under Chambers, and that's on the table this week with home games against Montana and Columbia. But before we move on to their next opponents, let's look at back at what we learned this past weekend.
1. Tony Carr is the unquestioned leader of this team
The Lions' sophomore point guard was expected to have a breakout season, and he's already off to a fast start. His 33 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists saved the Lions from opening night disaster after they struggled to put away Chris Clemons and Campbell. While their win probability never dipped below 94.2 percent during the game, PSU surrendered an 11-0 run to the Camels midway through the second half that had everyone sweating in their seats.
That's when Carr stepped up with a seven-point burst, including a gutsy three-pointer from the wing that helped extend the Lions' lead back to 13. When his teammates foolishly fouled down the stretch to let Campbell back in the game, he came up large again with another killer drive that resulted in his third three-point play of the game. He also calmly sank 9 of 10 free throws in the last five minutes, as well.
Carr followed that performance up with 20 points, 7 assists and 3 steals against Fairleigh Dickinson. Not a bad debut to his sophomore season, but I'd be lying if I said his missed layups weren't disappointing. Carr only shot 11 of 26 from two (42 percent) in his first two games, leaving multiple opportunities on the floor. He could've easily had 40 against Campbell. Converting at the rim was an issue throughout his freshman year, so you would've liked to see more improvement there, but it's far too early to be overly concerned. It certainly helps that he's getting to the line a ton and draining free throws at a 92 percent clip.
2. Mike Watkins must stay available
You can go back and forth on who's more important to this team - Carr or Mike Watkins. But with Watkins, there's just too big a gap in talent between himself and the backups that any extended time the redshirt sophomore misses could spell disaster for the Lions' season. They are simply a much better team when he's on the floor. That couldn't be more evident after Watkins' return from his suspension.
Chambers has assembled more depth in the form of bigger bodies on the bench, but none have been reliable so far. Julian Moore is still recovering from his offseason surgery and is under some kind of minutes restriction. His ball screen defense was decent against Clemons in the first game, but he struggled to finish prime opportunities at the rim. Satchel Pierce is certainly a big body, but we didn't see the offensive skills or mobility that were sold when he transferred (0-4 from the floor in two games). Both are serviceable in the right situations, but that's definitely not going to be extended run against Big Ten big men.
When Watkins returned against Fairleigh Dickinson, his impact was too obvious to ignore. The Lions were slow out of the gate until a typical Watkins sequence got the team going. He blocked an ill-advised jump shot, sprinted the floor, tracked down the pass from Reaves to prevent a turnover, and finished with a turnaround slam. He completed the game with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 blocks in just 20 minutes.
3. Josh Reaves can be a one-man wrecking crew
Honestly, I wasn't too thrilled with Reaves' performance against Campbell on opening night. He missed all of his three-point attempts, committed four turnovers, and had two awful fouls late that extended the game. Clemons also scored 39 points, so it wasn't like he completely shut down one of the nation's elite scorers. Even though Reaves logged 15 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 steals, you knew he was capable of playing much better.
Boy, did he ever play better on Sunday against Fairleigh Dickinson. You'd have to go to the film room to count how many turnovers Reaves forced against the Knights' inexperienced backcourt. There was a stretch towards the end of the first half where they couldn't even cross halfcourt on consecutive possessions, solely because of Reaves' nagging ball pressure at the top of the Lions 1-2-2 press. He finished with 17 points (including two threes), 9 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals in game two. Greg Herenda, Fairleigh Dickinson's coach, had this to say about Reaves after the game, courtesy of the Daily Collegian.
“Reaves is just omnipresent. You talk about a stocking stuffer of stats. He’s really, really, so valuable.”
Maybe this year he'll finally end up on the Big Ten's all-Defensive team, as he deserved last season. That was a dominating defensive performance on Sunday.
4. Garner, Stevens off to slow starts
Not everything went the Lions' way during opening weekend as two starters didn't play up to their billing. Lamar Stevens is definitely hampered by his recovering ankle sprain, as he didn't quite possess the same lift we saw from him last year. There was a play that stuck out in my mind at the end of the first half against Campbell when he couldn't elevate after a jump-stop and got rejected at the rim. He then played probably the worst half of his career during the second period when in 10 minutes, he contributed 0 points, 3 rebounds, 4 fouls, and 4 turnovers. He was better in his 33 minutes against Fairleigh Dickinson, but we'll have to see how he progresses in the early going.
As for Garner, the numbers are even uglier. I discussed whether he could be the elite shooter the Lions need after some stellar shooting in the exhibitions. But he laid two eggs out of the gate, including an 0-for-7 performance against the Knights. His 2-for-14 start from behind the perimeter is not what Nittany Lions' fans wanted to see from the senior. He deserves credit for continuing to play hard defensively despite the shooting woes, but consistency is needed on offense from No. 33. So far, he's only confirmed that he's still the same streaky shooter he's always been throughout his entire career.
5. Bostick will be a huge factor as the sixth man
The preseason concerns about the bench are valid. While Chambers has been getting a lot of guys run, the early returns haven't been promising. Davis Zemgulis doesn't look like he's improved, and the backup bigs are going to be limited. But one player who has backed up the preseason chatter has been Nazeer Bostick. While undeserved foul trouble limited him against Campbell, he chipped in a career-high 12 points against Fairleigh Dickinson.
Bostick is likely to play 20 minutes a game as the first reserve off the bench, so it's been encouraging to see how much he's grown offensively. He's more comfortable with the ball in his hands, and despite a missed dunk and an airball, he did finish 5-for-7 from the floor against the Knights. While he doesn't possess the three-point shooting that the departed Payton Banks leaves behind, he's much better going to the rim and does more dirty work on the boards. Overall, I expect him to be a net positive for this team off the bench.