In a statement that will lead to all of you going "well, duh," no team likes losing. This is especially true when a team loses in the manner that Penn State hoops has fallen in the last two games, losses to Illinois at home and Indiana on the road in which the Nittany Lions were behind at halftime, rallied back, and eventually just did not have the legs to pick up a victory. Add in that these losses occurred on the heels of an eight-game conference winning streak and a surge into the AP top-10, and these hurt a little more than the losses that we've seen out of Pat Chambers' bunch that have seemingly followed this exact script over the last however many years.
If there is a reason for hope, though, it's that these losses aren't necessarily the kinds of things that can upend an entire season. Penn State is safely in the NCAA Tournament, two of their remaining four games are at home, and season finale is a road contest against lowly Northwestern. They're the kinds of things that can play a role in the Nittany Lions tumbling from a 3-seed, but as of this writing, they're pretty safely in the field, especially considering both Illinois (probably) and Indiana (possibly) will make it to the Big Dance this March.
An additional reason for hope is that the Nittany Lions suffered both of those losses despite the fact that Myreon Jones is still sidelined with an illness, one that has cost him the last five games. Penn State is 3-2 in that stretch, and the matchup with the Hoosiers served as a mile marker in his return process, as he traveled with the team to Bloomington and warmed up before it was determined he could not go.
While Lamar Stevens is Penn State's star, Jones is the straw that stirs the drink, particularly on the offensive end of the floor. It should be no surprise that, without him, a pair of teams that are quite good at strangling the life out of opponents were able to muck things up and keep the Nittany Lion offense from hitting threes and getting out in transition. The defense was good enough to win both games — the Nittany Lions are 5-1 in Big Ten play when Jones plays and the defense holds its opponent to 70 or fewer points — the offense just evaporated.
Here's where Jones getting back into the lineup provides a gigantic boost for Penn State. The obvious way is that he's an outstanding shooter, as he leads the squad among qualified players (sorry, Jamari Wheeler) by connecting on 41.2 percent of his triples (112th nationally, per KenPom) with an effective field goal percentage of 56.7 percent (156th) and a true shooting percentage of 58.9 percent (205th). He's also second, only to Wheeler, in two-point field goal percentage (50.9 percent) among the team's non-centers, and has attempted 60 more twos than his aforementioned backcourt counterpart.
Things fall into place when a player like Jones is on the floor. He demands attention from defenses, meaning Stevens — who has looked tired the last few games and had a usage percentage of 49.7 percent against Indiana, the highest in one game in his career — has a little more room to work and doesn't have to deal with perimeter defenders trying to poke the ball away as frequently. Space opens up for a Myles Dread or a Seth Lundy to fly around and get decent looks from deep, in part because they have a second teammate who is good at getting them the ball (more on this in a sec). The games where Curtis Jones and Izaiah Brockington don't quite have it aren't as backbreaking, meaning they can be relied on during the evenings where they're really cooking and benched on the ones where they do not.
Beyond that, Jones is the team's best facilitator, too. He has the same assist rate as Wheeler (19.8 percent) without the propensity to turn the ball over — his turnover rate is 13.7 percent, 362nd nationally, while Wheeler's is a jaw-dropping 33.1 percent. As is the case with C. Jones, this means the nights when Wheeler just doesn't quite have it aren't as tough. He won't need to play through his mistakes on offense, necessarily, as Jones can be tasked with running the offense while Wheeler puts all of his effort into defense.
Speaking of that end of the floor, as you can guess, getting Jones back helps them there, too. Penn State's defense wants to make opponents uncomfortable, ramping up the pressure on ball-handlers and forcing them into mistakes, which in turn lets them get out, run, and get easy buckets in transition. Jones has a steal percentage of 2.5 percent, the same as one of the team's most destructive perimeter defenders, Brockington, and quite a bit behind Wheeler (3.6 percent). In his absence, the team has relied more on Dread (2.1 percent), Lundy (1 percent), and C. Jones (0.7 percent).
A great way to play at the pace the Nittany Lions want to play is to cause a heightened sense of urgency in your opponents. Penn State has done a nice job with that this year, as they're 49th nationally in steal percentage, but with Jones off the floor, they're not able to maximize their ability to force their opponents into making mistakes. Getting him back and adding another pest in the passing lanes is not as impactful as what he brings offensively, but any little bit on either end of the floor helps. He may not be an All-Big Ten perimeter defender, but he's a snug fit in the team's system. That matters a whole heck of a lot come March, when everyone's sense of urgency is a little more heightened and teams can find themselves getting skittish a little easier than usual.
Let's look at the totality of Jones' game by comparing him to the rest of college hoops this year. His KenPom player comps are quite flattering, saying his numbers are similar to a pair of guys in the NBA right now (Kendrick Nunn '15, Brynn Forbes '13) and a few pretty good college players (Khadeen Carrington '16, Kenny Boynton '10). As for where he fits into college hoops this year, there are 20 players in America who are connecting on at least 41 percent of their threes, are used on at least 20 percent of their team's possessions, boast an assist percentage of at least 18 percent, and have a steal percentage of at least two percent.
Jones is on that list, and he's one of only 11 players when you filter out those who do not meet the requirements for qualified scorers. Of those 11, Jones is one of only three (Desmond Bane of TCU, Matt Coleman of Texas) from a high-major conference, and his team is much, much better than the Horned Frogs or Longhorns. He also has the lowest turnover percentage of those 11 players and is second with a box plus-minus of 8.3, a metric defined as "A box score estimate of the points per 100 possessions a player contributed above a league-average player, translated to an average team." For what it's worth, that's also the top mark on Penn State's roster among qualified players not named "Mike" or "John."
All of this is to say that while Penn State basketball has hit a bump in the road over the last few games, it stands to reason that getting Jones back into the rotation can right the ship. They boast wins over the teams that currently sit in eighth (Michigan State), 10th (Maryland), 11th (Michigan), and 12th (Ohio State) in KenPom with him in the lineup, and even if you'd like to toss an asterisk on that win over the Wolverines due to Isaiah Livers not being available, they are still the one of three teams in the KenPom top-20 — alongside the Buckeyes and No. 1 Kansas — with at least four wins against other top-20 sides. There are a scant few basketball teams at any level that can avoid hitting a wall when their best shot creator/shooter/distributor hits the bench. Unsurprisingly, the Nittany Lions are not one of those teams.
Priority No. 1 for Penn State basketball during the final few games of the year is to get Jones healthy and ready to go. If he can't get healthy, or he's thrown into high-intensity games (i.e. the Big Ten Tournament or the NCAA Tournament) right away without getting the chance to find his form, problems will pop up for the Nittany Lions come March. But if he can return in the next few games and play his way back into game shape by the time those two tournaments roll around around, the Penn State should have every reason to believe that they have the firepower to trade haymakers with most teams in college basketball.