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Micah Shrewsberry is moving Penn State basketball program past last season's tumult

ADAM BITTNER
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Penn State coach Micah Shrewsberry gives instructions to his players during first half action against Indiana during an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan 2, 2022, in State College, Pa. (AP Photo/Gary M. Baranec)

Penn State's clandestine handling of former basketball coach Pat Chambers' departure last fall left his successor in a bind.

The resulting loss of trust caused by athletic director Sandy Barbour's decision to keep the findings of an internal report in the Chambers' conduct secret prompted most of the Nittany Lions' returning scorers to enter the transfer portal and look for new homes.

So on Day 1, Micah Shrewsberry had few proven players on his roster to attempt to maintain the program's gains of the previous decade, which would have resulted in Penn State's first NCAA tournament appearance in a while had the pandemic not forced the cancellation of March Madness in 2020.

Fortunately for Penn State, Day 316 dawns with significantly more hope because of Shrewsberry's methodical approach to building relationships — internally and externally.

"If you watch our team play, I think you see that the trust is being built," he told the Post-Gazette in a phone interview last week. "I've asked these guys to play a different way. Guys who were here. Guys who weren't here. Everybody was a freshman, because we're trying to do things in a different way and a different manner, and you can start to see the buy-in."

Indeed, Penn State enters play this week 8-8 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten. Not great, but certainly more competitive than the traditionally turgid program has been after past coaching transitions. Ed DeChellis started 9-19 in 2003-04, while Chambers was 12-20 in 2011-12.

Limiting defections: Step 1 was limiting the defections as much as possible. Several key players still ultimately ended up leaving, but guard Seth Lundy and forward John Hararr opted to stay. Today, they're two of the team's four leading scorers, and Hararr is far and away the team's top rebounder.

Shrewsberry credits pre-existing relationships, having faced both players as a member of Purdue's coaching staff, for helping make the sale. He also thinks his NBA experience as a former assistant with the Boston Celtics gave his fledgling staff needed credibility.

Supplementing the roster: Step 2 was supplementing the remaining roster with talent from the transfer portal. Shrewsberry's goal was to compete immediately rather than spend a handful of years rebuilding. So he chased veterans whom he knew would not be in Happy Valley for very long.

But he wasn't looking for college basketball's version of hired guns with their own agendas. Rather, he sought guys who fit into the culture he is attempting to build, even if their stays are more like residencies than careers.

"Those guys can destroy a culture. Or not help you build a culture if they're not the right guys," Shrewsberry said. "We brought in guys who were competitors. We brought in guys who still had a belief in terms of the kind of culture that we wanted to establish here. And maybe they're not here to see it through, but they can look back and say the helped start it. ... Team guys."

The effort is bearing fruit: That effort has borne fruit, too. Siena transfer Jalen Pickett is the team's second-leading scorer at 13.3 points per game. California-Bakersfield and Western Michigan product Greg Lee has offered meaningful scoring a rebounding help. And Jalanni White, who came over after four seasons at Canisius, has been a helpful role player.

Add the new faces to the returning roster and it's no offensive juggernaut — the Lions rank last the Big Ten in points per game at 65.5. They've retained the hard-nosed defensive intensity from the Chambers era, though. They rank third in the conference in points allowed, behind only Indiana and Rutgers.

That's been enough to keep them in most games, even against top-five teams like Purdue. And while Shrewsberry isn't one for moral victories, he thinks it shows the progress made in getting his team to play the way he wants it to.

Laying the foundation for a brighter future: Step 3 has been laying a foundation for a brighter future for a program that has suffered a lot. Exclude the unfulfilled 2020 season, when the Lions climbed as high as No. 9 in the rankings, and Penn State has made the Big Dance just once since 2001, losing in the first round against Temple in 2011.

Getting back to that level will require marquee talent in the mold of a Lamar Stevens, now playing a key role for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA after standout seasons in blue and white. And Shrewsberry hopes he's found it in the incoming recruiting class.

Rivals ranks each of Penn State's five incoming signees for 2022-23 at three stars. Together, they rank 29th in the scouting service's class rankings, a lofty spot for a program that's used to checking in much lower.

And the hope is that there can be more where that came from moving forward.

Condidence in the administration: Amid all the talk about facilities and infrastructure around football coach James Franklin's 10-year extension this fall, Shrewsberry remains confident in administration's commitment to his program, too.

Historically, that's lacked, to say the least. That 2011 squad, for example, was famously kicked out of its practice gigs so that rocker Bon Jovi could use them to prep for a tour. And Shrewsberry knows that what he has still probably doesn't stack up well around the conference.

He's also not using it as an excuse. He intends to make the best of where the program is now and believes that the people who recruited him to Penn State from his cushy role with the Boilermakers will step up as they have for Franklin in due time.

"For me, comparison is the thief of joy," Shrewsberry said. "Hey, maybe there are places in the Big Ten that have better stuff than us. Or their commitment is a little bit better. But it's nothing I can change right now. ... We need to go out and win with what we've got. And there's going to come a time and a place where we'll be able to do more."