The past week has been a microcosm of Penn State’s season.
The Nittany Lions followed up a humiliating home loss Saturday against Rutgers — a team that had previously never won a Big Ten road game — with a home upset Tuesday of a ranked Maryland group that Penn State had not beaten since the Terrapins joined the conference a few years ago.
It’s wild inconsistency we should have seen coming from a team that relies on three freshmen for major contributions.
Guard Tony Carr and forwards Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins have the numbers of consistent scorers. Carr is second on the team with a 12.3 points per game average, while Stevens and Watkins fall in behind him with averages of 12.0 and 9.6, respectively.
Dig through their game-to-game totals, though, and there can be some wild fluctuations.
Carr has scored in double figures in each of the past five games, but he scored six points or fewer in three of the previous five games. This conference season, he’s scored as many as 24 points and as few as two.
Stevens’ inconsistency is even more pronounced. At one point, he went five games without reaching double figures in points. Then he exploded for 26 against Indiana last week. He followed that up with a six-point effort against Rutgers, then surged again to pour in 25 against Maryland.
Watkins has chipped in nearly a double-double in each of his past four games, scoring at least 10 points and grabbing at least eight rebounds in every contest. This streak was immediately preceded, though, by a three-game skid in which he scored no more than six points and pulled down no more than five rebounds.
This is all natural on the individual level. Few are the freshmen who can come in and produce at a steady clip. They are prone to fits and spurts when different opponents show them different looks from game to game.
What’s unnatural and made this season such a frantic see-saw of big wins and tough losses for the team overall is the number of freshmen coach Pat Chambers is trying to help get acclimated to the college game.
Three is a lot. When they all play well, Penn State is arguably as good as any team in the Big Ten — save perhaps conference-leading Wisconsin — as the triumph over the Terrapins shows. When only a couple play well, as happened in the loss at Indiana, Penn State will probably be in a dogfight. And when multiple guys struggle, things can get hairy — fast.
The good news for Penn State is that some of this inconsistency is showing signs of evening out.
Carr and Watkins are both on those aforementioned streaks of double-figure performances. And while Stevens’ latest numbers have fluctuated considerably, those big, 25-plus point performances against Indiana and Maryland demonstrated that he has a different gear than we’ve seen most of the season. That bodes well as he looks to even out his production over the final six games that will determine the Nits’ postseason destination.
Of course veterans, including guards Shep Garner and Josh Reaves as well as forwards Payton Banks and Julian Moore ,play important roles in all of this. They’ve been prone to their own oscillations that have also cost Penn State at times this year.
But the freshmen account for two of the top three and three of the top five scorers on their team. Their fate on a given night is inextricably tied to the outcome. And until they really get into a game-to-game flow, we’ll probably continue to see Penn State exist in the duality of the past week where it can control a game against a good team one night and look helpless against a historically bad opponent the next.