When the Big Ten released its awards Monday, Penn State had its first all-freshman team honoree since 2006.
Guard Tony Carr was recognized as one of the Big Ten’s best five freshmen, well earned by the Philadelphia native. But the award isn’t just for Carr’s trophy case: it’s a sign of what’s to come in Happy Valley.
Carr anchored Penn State’s No. 26-ranked class for 2016, according to 24/7 Sports Composite Team Rankings. For those entrenched in the college basketball world, seeing Penn State’s name that high on the list raised eyebrows.
As each of those signees have become freshmen, raised eyebrows have turned to dropped jaws.
Lamar Stevens and Nazeer Bostick joined Carr to round out the class, and 2015 commit Mike Watkins is considered a freshman after redshirting last season.
Carr and Steven have become Penn State’s top two scorers, and 50 percent of the team’s 2,367 points came from the hands of freshmen.
“They’re a big part of our team,” junior guard Shep Garner said. “They’ve taken their roles and accepted them. You don’t really get that out of freshmen a lot.”
The freshman class proves Penn State head coach Pat Chamber’s plan to make Penn State basketball synonymous with Philadelphia. Each of his three commits and Watkins all hail from the city, helping to build a toughness in the team that comes with the Philly attitude.
“It was kind of a joint decision once Naz committed,” Carr said. “That definitely intrigued me to even look at this school and give it a chance. Once he committed, and I talked to Lamar about committing here, and Shep and Mike were already here, it just felt like the right choice to make.”
There’s been a learning curve for the Nittany newcomers. The difference in speed from the high school to college games is vast, and the long grind of a season in the national spotlight is a new experience for first-year players.
“It’s difficult for guys coming out of high school where you’re just bigger and better than everybody,” Stevens said. “It was definitely an adjustment, but I feel like we found our spots on the floor where we can impact the game. That’s only going to keep getting better from here on out.”
After going through a 15-18 (6-12) season and a second-round exit in the Big Ten Tournament, the struggle of playing with youth was apparent. But six of those losses were by two possessions or fewers, a sign Penn State is on the cusp of competing.
“This year was a learning experience for us,” Watkins said. “Next year … the chemistry is going to be better. It was a good start.”
For an outsider, the growth of Chambers’ freshmen might not be obvious, with the below .500 record clouding judgments. But Chambers has seen the growth from when his freshmen first stepped onto campus to now.
“Their habits are stronger. They’re more confident,” he said. “That’s only going to continue because they’re very coachable.”
At Big Ten Media Day in October, Chambers gushed about his freshmen, eager to show them off on the court. Now five months and nearly a full season later, his excitement hasn’t waned.
“It’s not going to reflect in our wins, but the growth and maturity of this group, I can see it from the Albany game all the way to today,” Chambers said Wednesday.
Garner is closing in on his final year at State College, but he might be more excited about Penn State’s freshmen than his coach.
“They are the future,” Garner said, cracking a wide smile. “I only have one more year after this, and then it’s them.”
Although Garner won’t be around for the Class of 2016’s upperclassman years, he has complete confidence the youngsters.
“No doubt about it,” Garner said, emphatically nodding his head. “I got faith in them now, I’m going to definitely have faith in them when I leave.”
This class would of course love to win a Big Ten title and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, but the larger goal is to make Penn State basketball better.
“We just want to make Penn State the best basketball program we can once we leave here,” Carr said. “It’s known as a football school, but we’re going to put in the endless hours of work just to be the best team we can.”
Chambers believes his program is building to that point.
“If we continue on this path, the future is bright for Penn State basketball,” Chambers said.
Edited by Jake Brodsky.