STATE COLLEGE – It’s the first half and Penn State has an 11-point lead with close to three minutes remaining. The Nittany Lions have possession of the ball and it is in the hands of Myles Dread. Dread swings it to the hot hand, Andrew Funk, who drills yet another three with a defender close. The Nittany Lions get back on defense and force a rushed shot with its disruptive defense. Jalen Pickett grabs the rebound, and before the offense could get set, Pickett finds a pacing Funk in transition, who drills a consecutive pull-up three-pointer. The Bryce Jordan Center goes wild and Winthrop, who now has found themselves down by 17, is forced to take a timeout.
Penn State’s energy was unmatched the entire night. The players fed off of it, from each other and the crowd. The team broke a school record with 18 three-pointers; might I add in its opening night. Andrew Funk, who shot 6-10 from downtown, seemingly couldn’t miss. His quick release, paired with the smooth jumper, made it seem like every shot would go in. Funk’s perimeter success was accomplished in multiple ways: off the bounce, off the screen, in transition, and on the spot up. Andrew Funk contributed his success to a productive, selfless offense.
“I don’t even know if I was in a zone, I think a lot of them were really open as a result of playing with really good players alongside me,” Funk said.
The Nittany Lions recorded a whopping 24 assists in its win against Winthrop. That is the most since they tallied 24 assists against Central Connecticut State on Dec. 20, 2019. Penn State also shot 55.5 percent from the field, good for its best since shooting 60.0 percent against Bucknell on Nov. 19, 2019, and its 93 points in the win are Penn State’s best since putting up 95 against Nebraska on Feb. 19, 2019. Again, this is all in Penn State’s season opener, beginning the second year of Micah Shrewsberry’s tenure at Penn State. The difference in the game against Winthrop was not merely talent; Winthrop went 23-9 last season and was very close to making the March Madness tournament. Coaching was the notable difference. Coach Shrewsberry had his guys locked in, which was evident in every little detail of Monday’s contest. The Nittany Lions got up early, and Shrewsberry, who traveled up and down the court to direct players from the sideline every second of the game, did not let them take their foot off the pedal. The execution was near perfect, turnovers were kept at a minimum, and the defense was tenacious throughout the game. Ahead of the season, Shrewsberry spoke about the anxiety of having all bases covered. I asked whether this anxiety was relieved after the dominant performance against Winthrop:
“I think so. I still want us to be better defensively,” Shrewsberry said. “11 three pointers is too much. It’s too many. Early in the year last year, we gave up a bunch of three-pointers, right? We have to clean that up in terms of the threes that they got or threes that they’re making, right? We
can’t give up threes when guys don’t do anything, when they’re not running actions to get a
three, when they just come off the screen and the guy shoots a three in your face.”
In his pre-season press conference, Micah Shrewsberry stated that Jalen Pickett is Penn State’s best player. It wasn’t a surprising statement then and definitely isn’t now. Pickett scored effortlessly time after time, either finding the sweet spot in the zone or simply taking his guy to the hole and finding a way to put it in. Pickett contributed all around, posting a 23-5-5 stat line on the night. Here’s what Jalen Pickett had to say after his night:
“It’s just finding the right spot and finding the right shot for our team. There’s just so much
spacing on the floor,” Pickett said. “I mean, Funk can shoot it, Seth can shoot it, you have Myles [Dread], Dallion, and Caleb [Dorsey] shooting it well. You don’t really have to take those unless it was a late shot and you have to make something happen but, there’s just so much space. We were getting great looks all night.”