Adam Fisher took a moment to think back through the game he just coached in as he stood in the Penn State locker room inside Wells Fargo Arena. The Nittany Lions’ associate head coach was in charge of scouting Penn State’s first round opponent Thursday night — Texas A&M — and gave credit to Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry for putting together the gameplan.
Sure, there were jitters early, but soon enough the team settled in. And once it did, there was no turning back and no need to adjust that gameplan.
Fisher said there wasn’t as much strategic involvement when it came to adjustments, but more encouraging players and fine tuning what they knew they could do.
“I think it was more little reminders,” Fisher told the Centre Daily Times. “Like, hey be ready for this or that. Obviously, when they got down a little bit we expected pressure to pick up a little bit, the press to pick up a little bit. We still wanted to stay aggressive and in attack mode. I think that was just little reminders.”
The encouragement seemed to be all the Nittany Lions needed.
They played true to their identity on their way to a dominant 76-59 victory over the Aggies in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
That identity centers around lead guard Jalen Pickett, an All-American point guard who doesn’t play like a traditional lead ball handler, and the shooters that surround him.
The Nittany Lions want to get Pickett isolated against the opponent’s smallest defender and they want him to go to work from there. Usually it’s by backing the defender down until he’s touching the paint, sometimes it’s by using half-spin moves and the occasional sudden first step to gain an advantage. Almost always, it works.
There have been strategies used against Penn State that have worked. Sometimes opponents bring two defenders to the ball and double team him, sometimes they fight over the screen and don’t allow the defender Pickett wants to stick with him.
Texas A&M, led by head coach Buzz Williams, tried to double on occasion but mostly stuck to what his team does — they switched on ball screens and gave Pickett the defender he wanted, eventually bringing a second defender to double team but usually when the Nittany Lion guard could see the whole floor in front of him.
Williams gave the credit to Pickett for dicing up his defense.
“The decision is coming from a player and stereotypically speaking, that decision is coming in the middle of the floor,” Williams said in his postgame press conference. “So no matter what you’re doing, whether it’s zone, whether you’re switching, whether you’re not switching, they’re going to get the matchup that they want on (Pickett) and if you don’t help, then he’s going to play in the middle of the floor with the ball. If you do help, the ball is immediately going towards where you have one less guy.”
Pickett was good as a scorer, finishing with 19 points, but really made the Aggies pay with his passing. He finished with eight assists and was able to hit his shooters — like Andrew Funk who made eight of his 10 3-point attempts and had 27 points.
Part of that was the gameplan set forth by Penn State head coach Micah Shrewsberry and his staff, but part was the lack of adjustments made by their opponents.
Penn State assistant coach Mike Farrelly gave the Aggies credit for sticking to their principles, and said he was proud of the Nittany Lions for executing at a high level. That being said, he wasn’t sure he was ever a part of a game where the team he’s coaching didn’t have to stray from their identity and their initial gameplan.
“They were trying to be the best version of themselves and doing what got them here,” Farrelly told the CDT. “But no, I’m not sure I have. … We just kind of stayed in the moment. … It’s almost keeping (the team) even-keeled and in that possession. Not getting excited because it’s ‘oh man we’re about to make the next round of the NCAA Tournament.’ We had them play possession by possession with the right mentality.”
While those principles got them to the NCAA Tournament, they took them no further. The Nittany Lions are a bear to play against. They don’t play like any other team in the country and they do it intelligently — spearheaded by a head coach that routinely outdoes his competitors in that regard.
Thursday night was the ideal example of that. Through 40 minutes of basketball, Penn State never had to sway from who it is. And now it’s a team that broke a 22-year streak without an NCAA Tournament win. Next up is a matchup with the No. 2 seed in the bracket, the Texas Longhorns, on Saturday.
Just as it did Thursday, Penn State will likely remain true to itself. It will show the nation it’s a team to be reckoned with and one that will not go down easily.
It’s a team that can make a larger impact nationally with each passing win.
Thursday was a ripple. Saturday would be a tidal wave.