One very prominent and truthful talking point about Penn State basketball this year has been the quality of their depth. This team's different because they can actually play nine guys every night with little drop-off. That narrative continues to gain credibility after recent changes to the starting lineup have hastened the development of some key reserves.
Pat Chambers had to do something after the Nittany Lions' first bad loss of the season. You'll hear this another five hundred times before March, but in this year's Big Ten, you have to protect your home court to be considered a legitimate contender. After an all-too-familiar loss against Wisconsin, Chambers decided he needed to change his starting lineup for the first time this season. His team had hit their first lull of the season with back-to-back ugly losses and an upcoming road-trip to Minnesota.
So Chambers inserted junior John Harrar for Mike Watkins and true freshman Seth Lundy for Myles Dread. Watkins' inconsistent efforts and Dread's shooting woes necessitated the switch, but after only two games, the move has already produced encouraging results. The Lions couldn't pull off the road win in Minneapolis, but they ended their skid with a strong statement at home against Ohio State. Lundy and Harrar made vital contributions in both games which saw PSU jump out to early leads.
This is undoubtedly a positive development, as PSU needs both of them for the brutal Big Ten grind. With 12 legitimate tournament contenders in the league, it's not surprising the Lions hit some rough waters already in January. All teams will at some point in the schedule because everyone looks terrible on the road (home teams have won 42 of 49 Big Ten games to date). But when your starters are struggling, what an unreal luxury it is for Penn State basketball to put its trust in their eighth and ninth men to right the ship.
Lundy's progress, in particular, is a major development for the rest of the year and beyond, as the Lions need a respectable three-point threat on the wing with Dread's shooting slump. A few months ago, Chambers said how fortunate it is to bring Lundy along slowly rather than throw him into the fire like he's had to in prior years with talented players. But I believe the head coach realized his freshman had to start playing more after he sat on the bench for all-but-two-minutes against Wisconsin.
The Roman Catholic alum has quickly taken advantage of the opportunity as a starter. He's made six threes in the last two games while averaging 13.5 points, 5 rebounds, and an assist. His production gives PSU a new dimension on offense as a bigger shooting threat at the 3/4 positions. At 6'6", he also has a bigger frame and the athleticism to help improve their defensive rebounding problems. If he can continue to get better on defense, an effective small-ball lineup next to Lamar Stevens would be a nice wrinkle to deploy in certain situations (like say, in the middle of a 10-minute scoring drought).
Lundy will continue to earn more minutes if he keeps making plays like this one which perfectly encapsulates what Chambers demands. This is how you set the tone as a starter. On this defensive possession, he first cuts off an Andre Wesson drive and then he makes a strong rotation to disrupt the ball with a deflection. While later he finds himself out of position for the rebound, he still battles and causes Kyle Young to lose the ball on a putback. After a scrum ensues for the ball, Lundy hits the deck for even more attitude points to give PSU the stop and possession.
In just those 20 seconds of defense, Lundy's confidence soared. He practiced what is constantly preached in Chambers' program, and his efforts were immediately rewarded on the other end. Lamar Stevens gave his protégé a perfect trailing look, and Lundy didn't hesitate on the trigger. He knew he had earned the right to take this shot, so he scorched the nylon, igniting the largest crowd at the BJC in the last nine years. The Buckeyes were never within six points again the rest of the way.
Hopefully, it's safe to say we won't see Lundy riding the bench the rest of this season. The freshman has shown he's ready to contribute now and if he continues to shoot well from three (9-18 in the Big Ten), the Lions become much harder to defend. Chambers can no longer afford to be patient, unless his seniors start playing up to their potential and avoid foul trouble. Even then, Lundy has still earned himself legitimate minutes from here on out.
Meanwhile, Harrar doesn't quite have the same potential as Lundy, but the junior backup big also has a crucial role to fill. Watkins' up-and-down senior year has left Penn State in some binds when their game-changing rim protector isn't effective. In a league with Luka Garza, Kaleb Wesson, Dan Oturu, Jalen Smith, Kofi Cockburn, Trayce Jackson-Davis, Xavier Tillman, Trevion Williams, Jon Teske (the list goes on), an ineffective Watkins would probably spell doom for the Nittany Lions any given night.
Harrar will never be mentioned in the same breath as those guys, but he's proven he can compete at this level. More importantly, the team can still play well with him on the floor rather than be mercilessly exposed inside. His increased minutes have allowed Watkins a chance to reset by coming off the bench. Now Harrar's own confidence has grown to the point that Chambers can start calling his number!
Out of the first media timeout of the second half with PSU up 52-36, Chambers decided to give Harrar a post-up off one of their baseline out-of-bounds sets they usually run for Watkins. When the Lions execute the play, Harrar does a good job sealing off Wesson, allowing Izaiah Brockington to lob in the entry feed. He then avoids the helping defender with a pump fake and power dribble and goes up strong for a finishing dunk. The entire PSU bench predictably lose their collective minds, as Harrar rewards his head coach's newfound confidence in him.
In the past two games, Harrar has converted 6-of-8 shot attempts, while he only put up five shots in the Lions' other five Big Ten contests. He will never be a high usage player at this level, but it's encouraging to see the Lions try to get him more involved in the offense. If they can make Harrar a bigger threat, especially off rolls to the rim, that will force defenses to show him more respect rather than quickly vacate to double-team on Stevens.
Give credit to Pat Chambers for making the change to his starting lineup, and give credit to Harrar and Lundy for taking advantage of the opportunity. Penn State's last three losses were dicey, but it turns out their season isn't on life support after all. If they can continue getting these kinds of contributions from reserves, the Lions can survive this Big Ten gauntlet and earn their first NCAA tournament bid since 2011.