It goes without saying that winning basketball games is difficult when you have a hard time putting the basketball into the basket.
And yet, for all of the issues Penn State men’s basketball has faced over the years, it might be the most straightforward problem plaguing the program right now. The shooters aren’t making shots.
“I thought against Ohio State we took a couple of bad shots but I didn’t think in this game we took bad shots, I just think we didn’t make them,” interim head coach Jim Ferry said on Sunday night following Penn State’s loss to No. 11 Iowa “So I think we got some pretty good looks and we just didn’t make shots. It was tough.”
It’s hard to argue with Ferry’s assessment. Against Michigan State, Ferry drew up a great play to get a wide open look for Myles Dread, and it didn’t fall. The list of missed open shots is subject to the law of averages as well, but it’s not as though the Nittany Lions aren’t getting open.
In fact the cold shooting slumps – not to state the obvious – have crippled Penn State’s ability to win games they’ve otherwise been hanging around in. The Nittany Lions have lost twice in overtime, and five other times by six or fewer points. It’s not that hard to imagine that Penn State’s season would be going much differently if a few more shots had fallen in those games. This isn’t a team struggling to stay in games, if anything it’s a team that has underperformed relative to its own potential offensive outputs.
Of course every basketball team in America would be better if it just made more shots, but as the Nittany Lions shot 50% from the field and made 12 shots from beyond the arc in an upset of Virginia Tech earlier in the season, you could see this particular team’s potential. When Penn State rattled off win after win during the 2019-20 season with many of these same players, it was never a question of offense.
All told Penn State has scored 80 or more points on seven different occasions this season but has only one three of those games. That might speak a bit to the Nittany Lion defense, but as you sift through the shooting charts, it’s the misses that stand out. Here are some, but not all of those slumps, free throws are not accounted for.
“We got multiple guys shots,” Ferry said. “We tried to run a couple different sets for guys to get good looks at the basket. I thought we had a little bit of fatigue, and then it happened again with John being in foul trouble. He really helps us facilitate offense and he was down and out a little bit with fouls and it affected us.”
The result has to be incredibly frustrating for a team that is functionally not lacking talent or athleticism. The Nittany Lions aren’t perfect by any stretch, but one would be hard pressed to say they lack high end athletes or quality and proven scorers.
And yet, there they are.
“We even got to the rim a couple times, missing layups and dunks,” Ferry said. “That’s tough. To beat the No. 11 team in the country on the road, you’ve got to make your layups, got to make your free throws, you got to make some open shots and we just came up short tonight.”
In the long run the issues may not matter much for what comes next. Short of a significant change of fortune the story has been written for this season, but as Ferry and his staff look back on the year, the inexplicable misses and the inability to break out of mid-game slumps will keep them up at night as much as anything has the past few seasons.