A brief health update on Micah Shrewsberry: He does not know what his blood pressure is, currently. Or at least he didn’t get it checked after his first season as Penn State’s men’s basketball coach, primarily out of fear for what the reading might be.
Sixteen games decided by seven points or less will do that to a guy. On those nights, the Nittany Lions came up maddeningly short 10 times. The what-ifs can cloud an entire offseason when a 14-17 overall record could have looked much different with only a handful of possessions swinging the other way. But then there are the words of a former boss, to which Shrewsberry clings as he moves ahead and prepares for an intriguing 2022-23 season: If you feel like you did everything you could, Brad Stevens would say, then you can be OK with how the scoreboard reads, either way.
“I tried to keep that in mind,” Shrewsberry says. “Now, I hate losing. But I knew we were competing at the right level. And doing everything we could do to stay in games and to give ourselves a chance. It just didn’t always come through at the end. But you can’t fault the effort of our players, you can’t fault the preparation our staff did. As much as it sucked to lose a bunch of close games, you feel OK with the results sometimes.”
One wonders how the results might change this winter, given the roster Shrewsberry and his staff will welcome to campus in mid-June The top two scorers (Jalen Pickett and Seth Lundy) are back. Two other starter-level players (Myles Dread and Dallion Johnson) return as well. A pair of productive grad transfers (former Drexel guard Cam Wynter and former Bucknell guard Andrew Funk) join the mix. The five-man freshman class is one of the better talent hauls in program history.
Nothing is guaranteed about older players improving, or up-transfers adjusting well to a new level, or first-year players being ready to contribute in any way. But Penn State was already playing NCAA Tournament teams close. Now it will field a deeper team with an experienced core that is comfortable with Shrewsberry’s systems and expectations. And a much less hectic on-ramp to prepare for it all. “We can go into it with a much better plan this year,” Shrewsberry says now, as more and more possibility creeps into the picture.
A good time, then, for The Athletic to chat with the Nittany Lions’ coach about lessons learned and what the immediate future holds in Year 2.
In terms of the job of Penn State men’s basketball coach, what did you not know — good, bad or indifferent — until you were in it?
For me, everything was brand new. I’d never really been to Penn State, except to play. And when you’re just playing here, you don’t really do anything or see anything. You just go to the hotel, come to the arena, back to the hotel, back to the arena, go to the airport and leave. So I never got a chance to see campus or learn anything about Penn State or the community or the alumni. All of that stuff was brand new to me. But now I’m starting to figure out who fits at Penn State, and who can have success here. A lot of who we recruit here in the future is going to be based off those kinds of things.
There’s a huge sense of community here. There’s also a blue-collar-ness to this place as well. And the people that appreciate that — that’s who the Penn State community is going to appreciate. The teams that just play their asses off, and play together, and have fun doing that — that’s who they’re going to rally behind. Finding kids that fit that kind of style of play, kids that appreciate the beauty of this campus and surrounding community, kids that appreciate being a part of something — that’s who we need to recruit and that’s who’s going to fit here. You have to find the right fits for this place to sustain success here.
What did you establish in Year 1, as far as the architecture of your program, that you don’t have to re-teach or build again now?
I was really pleased with the effort and attention to detail that our guys took to on the defensive end. That kept us in a lot of games. We were, at times, really tough to score on. We slowed it down, made it an ugly game, and forced you to play a certain style to try to beat us. It won’t always be that way. We got better offensively. We’d love to play much faster next year, in terms of pace. That’ll be a product of having more depth as well, where we can play at a quicker pace offensively. But defensively, in terms of who we are, we set the standard for how we’re going to play, how you need to play, to have success in this league.
I don’t think that’s going to change, that kind of blue-collar, hard-hat attitude on the defensive end. And having a bunch of guys back that have played that way will help the freshmen learn that as well. That was where I felt really good about what we did, how we played, how we defended, minus a couple games here or there where we just got our doors blown off. For the most part, we were competing because of our defense.
If I’m reading it right, you were a top 50 defense against one of the toughest offensive schedules in the country. Was defense always going to be priority No. 1 upon arrival?
I think so. I knew we’d be undermanned, right, based on what happened coming into Year 1. But also because of the Big Ten. There’s a lot of coaches that have been here, that are established. Having familiarity with the Big Ten, because of coaching in it, helped us as well. Going back, working for coach (Matt) Painter, he always talks about the teams that have won the Big Ten in the past, and they’ve been really good defensive teams. Go back through history of Bob Knight and Gene Keady and Bo Ryan and Thad Matta and Tom Izzo, and on and on, for years. They’ve always been really tough, gritty, defensive teams. Even the groups (John) Beilein had — they were really good offensively. But they held their own defensively as well. For you to have a chance, you have to be a good defensive team. We wanted to start with that. We spent a majority of our time on the defensive end, early on. I thought that would give us a chance to hang in there.
When you examined what you guys did offensively, what do you keep, and what do you know you have to move away from, if anything?
We need to play at a quicker pace. We were up against the shot clock a lot this year. It’s not like playing at a quicker pace means we’re going to turn into the Showtime Lakers or something. We still need to be smart about how we play, but our pace needs to be established even in the half-court, in terms of how fast we’re cutting, how quick we’re moving, how fast the ball is moving.
It’s also different where we play a lot of read-and-react basketball. You have to be comfortable to play fast. Our guys grew in their comfort level as the season went on. So now you start with a base of guys that have done it, that are more comfortable in the system, now you’re not thinking as much anymore. Now you can start playing off instincts. Now you can start playing a little bit faster. I felt good about what we did; now we need to find different ways to score the ball. We need to find different ways to get easier baskets. We need to find ways to get to the free-throw line more. We were pretty good attacking the rim early but we didn’t do a great job of it during Big Ten play.
But maybe you’re also drawing fouls because you’re cutting hard. You’re playing at a quicker pace and we’re a step ahead, maybe, this year. All of that — that’s where we need to improve. I like the structure of what we did. We just need to do it faster. Get a few more possessions each game. Take the margin for error and add a little bit. We didn’t have much margin for error because of the pace of our games, and how we played offensively and defensively.
Being comfortable in the system requires having been in the system, which requires player retention. In this nomadic world of college basketball, after a 14-17 season, how did you and the staff manage to keep that older core intact and out of the transfer portal?
There’s always going to be some attrition. I see the list that pops up on Twitter about the teams that haven’t lost anybody to transfer. It’s a handful. We don’t want anybody to ever leave here, period. But if they leave here, we don’t want them to say we didn’t invest everything we had into making them a better player and a better person. We spend a lot of time on individual development, and trying to make guys better, and trying to help them improve their games so they can reach their goals. That’s intentional, in terms of the staff we put together. We have a lot of guys who are personable guys, who people want to be around.
I added guys on our staff with knowledge of playing at the professional level. Whether it be Aki Collins, who was a scout with Oklahoma City, or Tre Whitted, who was an assistant coach with the Maine Red Claws, or Mike Green, who played professionally overseas for 12 years. Having those guys and their knowledge, to help people reach where we’ve been, in the best way possible. We’re going to put everything we have into making you as prepared as possible to play at the next level, if that’s your ultimate goal. And I think those (players) really enjoy it. What we did was maybe a little bit different than what they’ve done in the past, a new way of doing things, and it’s exciting. It brings them back. They want to learn more. We can help them do that here.
Of that core group, whose growth is most important and why, for the program to take another step ahead?
There’s probably two guys. Jalen Pickett and Seth Lundy both. They both started every game they played in. They’ve only been here with us for one year, but they both got better as the season went on. I thought Jalen really got comfortable from the start of the season to the end of the season, where by the end of the year he was a really good guard in our league. Coming back, he’s a guy who could get recognition based on how he played at the end of the season.
Seth, he dealt with some nagging injuries at the end of the season, which kind of stunted his progression and growth. But he was playing really good basketball before he got hurt. That kind of set him back a little. But he played unbelievable in the Iowa game here at home. His development and continued growth, where now you have two guys that you can really count on to be high-level performers in this league, that gives you a great base and a great starting point.
With older guys, the question is always, are they who they are after three or four years, or can they get better? Why are you confident a guy like a Pickett or a Lundy can improve as they get older, instead of simply just getting older?
It’s trying to take different things and work on different things where they can improve in small steps. Them growing in our system helps them as players as well, and gives them different ways to attack. There are some things we’re talking about and teaching that they never worked on exclusively. You may not see it as a drastic improvement in their game, but it all helps. Like we really worked on Seth attacking close-outs last year, during the season. You could see that changing. You could see that growth. Before he got injured, he started to really attack them, and it helped slow the game down for him, where he was making really good reads and making really good plays and scoring more in the paint.
Those small, incremental progressions — you’re never finished growing as a player. I don’t think you’re ever a finished product. You always have something you can add to your game. Like Jalen Pickett may not get more athletic. But we can improve his passing. We can improve his decision-making. We can improve his play in the post or his catch-and-shoot in different areas, where it’ll change his game.
Who’s the guy you’re curious about over the summer and into the fall, with what leap he makes and how big a leap it is?
Dallion Johnson didn’t play at all for us at the beginning of the year. And then he ended up starting the last 14 games. The one thing about him is, he never stopped working when he wasn’t playing. He stayed after it. This year, he was just strictly a catch-and-shoot guy for us. He’d make open shots, he’d space the floor. He has some game off the dribble. He has explosiveness to him. He played on the older Mass Rivals team when my son was in middle school, so I got a chance to see him practice and watch him work with that group. I knew he had some things off the bounce that he hasn’t shown yet. Him playing at the end of the season gave him more confidence that he could come in and survive in a Big Ten game, but also do good things against good players. He adds a different element to us. He’s got some speed as a cutter, some quickness where he can lose guys coming off screens. Now he’s not just a catch-and-shoot guy. He’s running off screens and making shots but also putting the ball on the deck and getting by people. His growth is going to be really important to us.
The Colonial and the Patriot are not the Big Ten. But what do Wynter and Funk do that’s translatable and helpful, immediately, even as they get accustomed to a new level?
Wynter’s ball-handling — that’s where, as a team, we needed to have more ball-handling. I didn’t think we had enough to play the way we wanted to. That’s something Cam gives us. He gives us another guy to play off pick-and-rolls and make decisions. He’s got some burst to him. And he can score in different ways. He can get to the midrange and make pull-ups, he can get all the way to the rim, he can make 3s — even though he didn’t shoot it at a great percentage this year.
I think Andrew Funk is a very underrated passer. He can play in pick-and-rolls, he can make decisions. Going back to my Purdue days, he’s got a feel of a Sasha Stefanovic to him, the passer that Sasha was, and how I tried to use Sasha in ATO situations. Andrew has that same feel. It’s really underrated. It’s not something people see a whole lot. They see him as a shooter. And either one of them, they don’t have to shoulder the load for the whole team. They don’t have to take as many. Like Andrew had to take tough shots. That’s what his team needed him to do. I think he gets easier shots playing with a Jalen Pickett, playing with a Cam Wynter, playing with a Seth Lundy. He’s not getting the No. 1 guy defensively every single game. That’s where things will open up and change with those guys.
You didn’t have the most size last year. Is that a key area to address moving on, or are you thinking you can play with a system where the small forward maybe isn’t 6-8 or 6-9?
I’m one of the ultimate underdog kind of guys. Toughness will make up for it. We may not be as big as other people. Just be tougher than them. That’s how we have to build it.
And then I’m huge on skill. You have to have a lot of skill. That kind of trumps some of the size. The size would help us, and as we continue to recruit, adding more size is going to help us defensively, especially on the perimeter. And we’re trying to recruit to that. But if we have a level of toughness and basketball IQ, we can make up for that size we don’t have.
You were old last year. You’re going to be even older this year. Where does this freshman class fit in, then? Who has a role, assuming they earn it?
Automatically, I think the two young big guys are going to get thrown into the fire a little more, just because they’re at a position where we may need one of those guys ready to help us right away. And probably both of them. It could fluctuate, their minutes and how much they play. But those guys need to be ready right away and we need to treat it that way.
Having so many older guards, our freshmen are going to have to come in and earn it. There’s a place for them. Nobody’s guaranteed anything. You have to come in and earn your minutes, no matter if you started every game or if you’re a freshman. We’re open to competition. But they’ll know from Day 1 it’s not going to be easy for them. It’s going to make their careers better, because they gotta work for everything.
I like all three of those freshman guards. They bring something different. Kanye (Clary) is small, but he’s fast, he’s fast-twitch, he can get to his spots, he can make tough shots. Just a little shifty guy that’s hard to deal with. Jameel Brown plays with a level of poise like an older player. He’s a really good passer, in terms of seeing the game and seeing plays ahead of time. With his size and his ability to make shots, he fits in, in terms of what we do. And Evan Mahaffey is kind of the jack of all trades of the group. You can plug him into a lot of different spots. He played point guard for his high school team, but he’s 6-6 and he has a 7-foot wingspan, so he’s a guy who can block shots around the rim. Whatever you need, you can kind of put him in that position and play him with a lot of people.
We’re really excited about all these guys. But does it show right away, because of how old the other guys are? Our level of competition in practice is about to go up. Which is good. This is how you build a program. You come in and earn it and have guys who work into it.
I don’t know if there’s a way to quantify where you want your recruiting to get to, but what kind of foothold have you been able to establish in a cycle and a half?
We’re recruiting with a smaller lens, more than a huge, wide net. Like I said, there’s a certain kid that’s going to fit. There’s a certain kid that is going to fit me and how I want to play and Penn State. We’re recruiting with a scope. We find the guys we think are going to fit and we go really hard after that select group of guys. We’re going to try to build this through high school kids and the right fits and kids who are going to want to be a part of this and stick around for a long time.
You put it on paper — a bunch of older guys who have been through the Big Ten, veteran pieces from the portal, a bunch of freshmen who can fill roles — it feels like a pretty complete roster. And a chance to really seize. I know there’s urgency every year … but how would you describe the urgency to have success in 2022-23, given the personnel you have, and given the momentum it can create early on?
I want to win for our older guys. A guy like a Myles Dread or a Seth Lundy, who were a part of that team a couple years ago that didn’t get a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament because of COVID. A Jalen Pickett, who kind of put blind faith in me by coming here, sight unseen, jumping on board with a first-year coach. Andrew Funk — he hasn’t had a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament. Dallian and Caleb (Dorsey), who stuck around to play for a first-year coach. I want those guys to experience what success is.
I’m fortunate. I’ve experienced a lot of great things in my life. I’ve been to NCAA Tournaments, I’ve coached in national championship games, I’ve coached in Eastern Conference finals, I’ve coached in an NBA All-Star Game. Like, I’m OK. I’m OK. I want those guys, the guys on our team, the guys in our program, to experience those same things. That’s why I want to go. I want to capitalize on it and keep our momentum going, and continue raising this program to where it needs to go, to get us to an NCAA Tournament because our fans are dying to get there. But I want it for our guys.
Everything we do is built toward that. I put high expectations on myself and this program and where we want to go. And I don’t have a lot of patience. I’m gearing up for us to do something special every single day I walk in the door.
What constitutes success in Year 2?
We need to win some of those close games, right? That changes what our season looks like. It changes how we’re talked about at the end of the season. If we flipped some of those games where we’re close, now you start stacking more wins up there. Can we win three more of those? Can we win four more? You lose at Illinois by a couple points, you lose at Wisconsin by a couple points, you lose to Michigan at home by one — all three of those teams are NCAA Tournament teams. Now you’re stacking it up. You add more. Now you’re starting to throw yourself into the discussion, and getting some momentum in that way.
Success to me is, can we get ourselves in position to be talked about at the end of the season, for having a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament? That’s my goal. I want us to be in that position. And if we’re not in that position, did we do everything humanly possible to be there?
(Top photo: Justin Casterline / Getty Images)