Penn State Basketball: Nittany Lions emerging as a 2021-22 offseason winner

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Penn State Basketball

Penn State Basketball Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

With the Nittany Lions administration’s decision not to retain interim head coach Jim Ferry, a new era has begun for Penn State Basketball in the past month under former Purdue associate head coach Micah Shrewsberry – and, despite the 44-year old’s lack of Div. I head coaching experience, Shrewsberry’s unexpected initial success has cemented the Nittany Lions as a sleeping winner in the 2021 offseason.

Shrewsberry inherited a daunting – but not necessarily dreadful – situation in State College, Pennsylvania, in the form of a Penn State squad that had suddenly lost its coach in Pat Chambers in late October of 2020 due to an internal investigation into inappropriate misconduct – and just as abruptly thrust Ferry into the replacement position, who had to take over a team that had graduated its second all-time leading scorer in Lamar Stevens and had climbed as high as ninth in the AP Top 25 poll.

What proceeded was an 11-14 overall record and 7-12 mark in Big Ten play that was, for all intents and purposes, better than what was anticipated, considering the Nittany Lions were picked to finish 12th in the preseason media poll – and could have been even better.  Of Penn State’s 14 losses, nine were decided by single-digits – with an average margin of defeat of 3.78 points – and four being determined in a one-possession game.

The losing record, on the surface, obviously does not reflect it, but Penn State’s competitiveness in a conference hailed as one of the top two leagues this past season speaks dividends to Ferry and his squad.  That validity is only furthered, too, when considering that the Nittany Lions maintained the highest strength of schedule rating – not only this season – but in the past 20 years, per KenPom, at +19.38 – which is +5.16 better than the 2002 Arizona team that trails Penn State at +14.22.  On top of that, the Nittany Lions were the second-highest ranked team left out of the NCAA Tournament at 40th, per KenPom, trailing just Duke.

But with Ferry now gone and at the helm of UMBC, Penn State basketball will usher in a new age under Shrewsberry – and one that, since his hiring on March 15th, has begun on a promising tone.  Despite the loss of three starters to the transfer portal, Shrewsberry and his newly assembled staff have already landed a few pivotal transfers – as well as a handful of commitments from returners – that should have the Nittany Lions remaining competitive in the Big Ten.

None of this is to say that Penn State will vie for a top spot in the conference in 2021-22, especially with teams like Purdue, Ohio State, and Michigan entering next season with national top 10 expectations – but the Nittany Lions have the pieces needed to catapult themselves into the middle of a crowded Big Ten.

For a team that was robbed of a postseason opportunity at the end of one of the greatest seasons in program history in 2019-20 – and subsequently endured a tumultuous coaching change just before the ensuing season – there should be welcome optimism at University Park next year.

To state the obvious: the catalyst for this positivity stems from the change in identity, with Shrewsberry’s hiring officially marking the end of the Chambers era – which essentially lasted a decade, between his own nine seasons at the helm and Ferry’s lone interim campaign.  In that span, the Nittany Lions failed to reach the NCAA Tournament – although they did claim an NIT title in 2018, and were projected to qualify in 2020.

Shrewsberry’s first season will certainly be full of challenges – but there are numerous signs that indicate that Penn State could rebound from last season’s losing record, and could finally break through its NCAA Tournament drought.  That change in identity – and the emergence of newfound optimism – begins with the roster and stretches to the sidelines.

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