Penn State fell 74-68 on Sunday evening to No. 11 Iowa in the kind of game that showcased the team the Nittany Lions want to be as well as the team the Nittany Lions often are.
There was the first half, Penn State trailing by 13 in the opening stages of the game as the Hawkeyes hit shots early and often. By any reasonable measure the blowout appeared to be fully underway, and yet it wasn’t.
Because Penn State caught fire and Iowa cooled, the Nittany Lions turning to their token three-point shooting and fiery offense that can rely on all five players at any given moment. The ball moves, the shots fall and the Nittany Lions remind you that they were ranked in the Top 10 just a year ago.
Penn State’s strength is that it is well-stocked with capable bodies, its weakness is that none of them appear to be every night stars. If Lamar Stevens, Tim Frazier ,Talor Battle, DJ Newbill and Tony Carr had any faults it wasn’t consistency, and in turn Penn State could rely on them to do their jobs and iff nothing else, they could rely on someone to know when, how and where to get that much-needed basket.
It would appear as the season draws closer to its final weeks, the lacking development of that star is the team’s downfall. The Nittany Lions have always had someone to lean on, but as it stands not long after the 12th loss of the year, they have a lot of options but very few – if any – guarantees any given night. All of them are capable, but in the role of the biggest baddest man on the roster, none of them have been consistently reliable. Seth Lundy has been a good example of this, a dead eyed shooter in 2019-20, and reliable in his role during the back end of last season, he has struggled mightily to find his place on a team in which he must carry a bigger load. As a result he has gone from a starter and presumed leading scorer to an off-the-bench role player yet again.
In turn you get the kind of season Penn State has had so far. One in which the Nittany Lions are not very good but also just good enough to almost beat everyone they play.
Even so – somehow – it was 41-36 at the half, Penn State leading by virtue of enough players making shots in a timely order that while Iowa might have more well defined roles and a star in Luka Garza, the Hawkeyes faced the one strength that can make this Penn State team good: on occasion all five Nittany Lions all click in harmony, and when they do that they can beat anyone.
The hard part is that in order to do such a thing for a full game, you need inconsistent players to click consistently. With an absence of a star to glue them together, that harmony can lose its pitch.
And this leads to much of what happened in the second half and what has happened at times over the course of the year. Penn State went cold, at one point missing 12-straight shots over a long span while making just two baskets in the final 12 minutes of regulation. All the while each searched for an answer, and the quality and variety of shots suffered at times because of it.
One would think this would result in a blowout, and as Iowa went ahead by 12 that more or less took place until those two timely makes, free throws and the Hawkeyes going cold in their own right brought the game back within five.
But if you have a ton of role players you have no stars in those key moments. It’s a bit like the saying “having two quarterbacks in an offense is like having no quarterbacks in an offense,” so the Nittany Lions tried – and to their credit the lack of a true star was only compounded by the fact wide open shots simply didn’t fall. When the buzzer sound, Penn State never got closer than five.
Myreon Jones looked tired, going 3-for-15 from the field for 11 points while Myles Dread went 3-for-7 from the field and beyond the arc for 10 of his own. A slew of other Nittany Lions chipped in along the way, but scoring droughts that effectively last an entire half of a basketball game do not lend themselves to great box scores.
All things considered it’s a fitting start to the end of a season and likely an era. Penn State basketball has spent the better part – but not all – of the last five years being pretty good while also coming up short. If there was an appropriate way to end the entire experiment, it would be with a team that feels cripplingly limited while simultaneously capable of beating Top 10 teams in back-to-back games.