LAST SEASON – Finally, Pat Chambers started to make headway with this program. The Nits had been a try-hard group which just couldn’t get over the hump very often, but last season he got PSU to 16-15 and 7-11 in the conferencce. Now that’s not going to bring any trophies to Happy Valley, but it did represent real progress, as PSU was a competitive team which looks to have a bright future, with a lot of young talent returning and even more reinforcements coming in via the best recruiting class of Chambers’ tenure.

THIS SEASON

Everything starts with 6’1 junior Shep Garner. He’s the leading returning scorer at 14.5 ppg and also ran the Nit offense last season. Garner isn’t a pure shooter as much as a streak guy, but he compliments that with a good ability to get to the rim and draw contact. He’s the catalyst for this group, no question.

Now, there’s a possibility that he might move off the ball this year, depending upon how ready top 100 PG recruit Tony Carr is to inherit big minutes early. Carr is the best recruit of the Chambers era, so he’s likely to play a lot no matter what. There is a school of thought that Garner isn’t necessarily best playing on the ball and would be even more effective if he had his responsibilities stripped back a bit. Carr could allow that to happen. He’s seen as a guy who can really create for others, has good vision and size for the position, and has leadership potential. He’s also come through the Philadelphia Catholic league and has won a state title, so you can safely presume he’s tough.

Josh Reaves is a 6’4″ sophomore who had his ups and downs as a freshman but seems to have a bright future and should be a more consistent player this season. He’s got to improve his perimeter stroke to really take off but he’s an athletic, competitive guy who showed some toughness and scrap, and he also makes good decisions. Expect him to be a likely starter as PSU looks for him to expand his offensive game while continuing to provide the toughness and athleticism he showed last season.

PSU also has some intriguing options off their bench. Isaiah Washington is a 6’3″ sophomore who offers some size and athletic ability, but has to make progress in developing more consistency with the jumper to be really effective. The guy who could really push through from this group is 6’4″ UConn transfer Terrence Samuel. He started 8 times for UConn as a soph. Samuel is seen as an impact guy defensively, but how much larger his role can grow depends in part on how much progress he’s made offensively. That’s what limited him in Storrs. At a minimum, he’ll be a significant part of this team because of what he can do on the defensive end, however. Then PSU also added another freshman in Carr’s HS teammate, 6’4″ Nazeer Bostick. He fits the mold of pretty much all of these wing players for PSU…athletic (he might be the best of the bunch in that regard), tough but with work to do offensively.

Upfront, PSU lost some productivity with Brandon Taylor’s graduation and Jordan Dickerson’s defense and Donovan Jack’s size and occasional offensive punch will be missed as well. Yet, this group has a chance to be as good or better, though they’ll be doing it with a lot of young/new faces.

Payton Banks is a 6’6″ junior who was third on the team in scoring last season. He started all but one game and will certainly push to be a regular starter again this year. Like so many of the NIts, he’s an energy/toughness guy rather than a pure basketball talent. Banks can shoot a bit (32% from deep) but not well enough to be a consistent threat. He’s not big enough to be a weapon on the glass, but he can help you there with his motor and toughness. He might actually be more effective in a reduced role, but we’ll see how things develop.

Julian Moore is a 6’10” junior who is reaching the put up or shut up point in his career. He started 12 times last season and shows just enough flashes to make people think he might be able to evolve into a reliable scorer. He’s going to be in the rotation, that much is certain, but how big his role is will be up for debate. Moore needs to show more consistency in all phases to become a starter.

6’6″ sophomore Deividas Zemgulis got hurt last season and wasn’t able to contribute as much as they’d hoped. He was brought in to provide shooting but only hit 25% of his deep attempts last season, so that has to improve in order for his role to increase.

The hope for improvement with this group doesn’t hinge as much on the returnees as it does the new faces. First and foremost, redshirt freshman Mike Watkins is a guy PSU has been very excited about. A 6’8″ 240lbs center prospect, Watkins is seen as being ready to go on defense and as a rebounder right away. Offensively, he’s a bit raw but I expect we’re going to see him as the starting 5 man sooner or later. Chambers referenced him frequently last season as a guy who was playing very well in practice, so I expect we’ll see at least some of that translate to the floor this year.

Lamar Stevens is a 6’6″ freshman PF from Philly Roman Catholic (played with Carr and Bostick) who is among the most highly regarded recruits in recent PSU history. Expect him to play a bit like Jae’Shawn Tate at OSU…he’s a bit undersized but has good length, a great motor and nice hands and footwork. Right now, he’s strictly a post player on offense. I think he’ll push for a starting role on this team as well.

Joe Hampton is a 6’8″ 260lbs freshman center who probably will need some time to earn a regular role but they believe he has potential to develop into at least a rotation guy. With Moore and Watkins around, he may get the opportunity to redshirt.

BOTTOM LINE – I like Chambers. I like his toughness, I like the way he’s gotten his team to reflect his style as a coach, and I like the fact that he refuses to just simply accept PSU’s second class status. Now, all of that stuff is fine but ultimately you need talent to win in this league. After a few years of struggling, it seems to be clear than Chambers has had his breakthrough in that area as well, with a big time recruiting class supplementing some other good young talent.

I don’t have them higher mostly because I struggle to see anyone outside of Garner who is likely to be a good perimeter threat and that’s a big hole to have on a team in 2016. If some of these guys take steps forward in that area, PSU certainly could finish higher than this. They may do that anyway, but the lack of proven shooting plus the overall youth of the team has me tempering expectations just a shade for next season.

I think if they push for a top 8 finish, it won’t be a shocker, but I have them just a bit outside of that area for next season. The future looks very, very bright though, for the first time in a long time.