By: Matt Bortner, ESPN Radio 1450 Reporter
It’s a game that fans have circled since Penn State’s schedule was released, Duke. If Penn State wants to continue to advance their program, it is games like this that must show up on their schedule from year to year. More than likely Penn State isn’t ready to win games like this just yet, but it is an experience that is absolutely necessary.
Just four games into the season the Nittany Lions will travel to Uncasville, Conn for the Hall of fame Tip-Off Tournament at Mohegan Sun. It will be the first time the youthful Nittany Lions will step away from the BJC this year. Penn State opens with #1 Duke at 12:30 on Saturday and then depending on results will play either #21 Rhode Island or #24 Cincinnati on Sunday. Two ranked opponents in the matter of two days.
The weekend will give Pat Chambers an idea of where his team is currently at. At 2-1, Penn State opened up the season with a loss to Albany and then countered with victories against Duquesne and Grand Canyon. In each game the young team produced better performances. All quality opponents, but none like they will see this weekend.
Although the weekend gives Chambers a sense of his team’s standing, it is not an end all be all. Very rarely a team looks the same four games into the season compared to the final weeks. The first month or so can be the hardest for young teams such as Penn State. The Nittany Lions have been without arguably their most important player so far this season, Josh Reaves. The sophomore swingman suffered a lower leg injury before their season opener. Sophomores Davis Zemgulis and Isaiah Washington also did not play against Grand Canyon due to injury. That is 3 of the 6 players that have playing experience for the blue and white prior to this season.
Penn State hopes to get those players back this weekend. According to Chambers, a Reaves return is 50/50 at this point. Zemgulis passed concussion protocol so his status will be monitored, the same with Washington who still has some soreness. Chambers says he will not play anyone unless they are 100 percent in fairness to them and the team.
Obviously a win against Duke is Chambers top priority, but his main concern is that his team continues to get better. Freshman Mike Watkins, Lamar Stevens, and Tony Carr have accounted for 53 percent of Penn State’s points this season, which reflects exactly how young this team is. That is not something Chambers is overly worried about against Duke because they have experience playing against some of Duke’s best players in the high school circuit, such as AAU.
The #1 Blue Devils are coming off a 77-75 defeat of #7 Kansas Wednesday night. Duke was without its three star studded freshman (Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden, and Harry Giles) due to injury. Their status is unknown, but that doesn’t mean the Blue Devils aren’t still loaded. Duke has five players averaging more than 10 points a game, led by Grayson Allen.
For Penn State to have any chance, they are going to have to muddy up the waters. A lack of effort has never been a concern for a Chambers led team. Although this team likes to push the pace, they will have to be more selective when playing a team with so much fire power. Chambers biggest concern to this point has been his team’s defense, namely rebounding. It is another aspect that he contributes to youth, young guys relying on their athletic ability and not boxing out.
Some timely three pointers can keep Penn State in the game, but don’t be surprised if Duke runs away with it in the end. A loss or even two this weekend should not be discouraging as long as the new kids on the block show that they can compete with the big boys. As early as the season is game by game progress is the best result at this point.