STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Lamar Stevens could have gone pro a few months ago. Instead, he returned to a Penn State team that finished last season as one of the hottest in the nation after a poor start.
Stevens believes the Nittany Lions are much closer to the squad that won seven of its last 10, including two against Top 25 teams. He also thinks they're a lot closer to making their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2011 than most people think.
"It's a challenge that I'm ready to accept and I think that my teammates are as well," Stevens said. "It's something I've dreamt about forever. I'm excited for the challenges that come and the adversity we're going to face to get there, but I think this team will be ready for that step."
It's taken some growing pains to get to this point.
The Nittany Lions have a roster full of upperclassmen and returning contributors that went 7-4 in the non-conference portion of last year's schedule before starting Big Ten play 0-10.
Stevens, the Big Ten's second-leading scorer (19.9 ppg), is joined by fellow forwards Mike Watkins and John Harrar who've played heavy minutes for a team that likes to play physical. Jamari Wheeler has done most of his work off the bench as a spark-plug-type player who leads a young, talented group of guards looking to replace Josh Reaves and Rasir Bolton.
Penn State coach Patrick Chambers will likely tinker with the lineup through a non-conference schedule that includes Alabama and NCAA tournament qualifiers Yale and Ole Miss.
"Right now, we could play 10 or 11 guys," Chambers said. "Normally, it's pretty clear who the starting lineup is for me in my tenure."
Bolton opted to transfer to Iowa State, leaving Penn State with a 27-minutes-per-game hole to fill. He also was the team's second-leading scorer (11.6), top 3-point shooter (36 and best option from the foul line (87.6%). But there are capable players ready to step up including Myles Dread and Myreon Jones. While the latter is nicknamed "Buckets," Dread drained 67 3-pointers, one shy of the school record for a freshman last year.
Watkins has battled adversity on and off the court throughout his career. His most recent struggles came last season as he tried to work his way back from a February 2018 knee injury that cost him the balance of that season, when he was having a career year. Last season, the 6-foot-6, 254-pound Watkins never felt 100% and posted career lows in points (7.8) and rebounds (7.4). Chambers described Watkins' status as day-to-day, but said the big man made good use of the team's offseason training program.
"He is almost to the level he was a couple of years ago before the injury," Chambers said. "His second jump is back, and it is great to see."
Curtis Jones Jr. will help solidify guard depth. The journeyman, who also played at Indiana, joined the Nittany Lions as a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State where he averaged 8.1 points and three rebounds per game as the Cowboys' sixth man. Guard Izaiah Brockington is eligible after transferring from St. Bonaventure and sitting out last season per NCAA rules.
OH SO CLOSE
The Nittany Lions lost nine games last season by two baskets or less. Six of those were conference games.
The Nittany Lions open at home against Maryland-Eastern Shore on Nov. 5. They play four of their first five at home with their first road game against Georgetown on Nov. 14.
More AP college basketball: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and https://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25