B1G Basketball Preview: Penn State
Last year, Penn State accrued a record of 18-16, its first winning season under Pat Chambers. Despite jumping out to a 12-1 non-conference record, the Nittany Lions faltered to a disappointing 4-14 Big Ten record and a 13th place finish in the conference. A surprising quarterfinal run in the Big Ten tournament helped the team receive its second consecutive CBI invite, which was declined.
While preseason expectations are not very high, there is the belief that, in his fifth season at the helm, Chambers’ program should show some improvement. The loss of multiple key players will require former role players to step up in a big way.
Key Returning/New Players
Penn State brings back its second and third leading scorers from last season. Sophomore guard Shep Garner averaged 9.2 points per game and senior forward Brandon Taylor contributed 9.1 points per game.
Garner, who played both guard positions last season, impressed and frustrated coaches and fans last season, which was expected from a true freshman. At times, he showed flashes of Talor Battle-esque brilliance, knocking down deep three pointers and aggressively attacking the basket. On the other hand, he turned the ball over 48 times and only averaged 2.3 assists per game.
Taylor will be looked at to become the go-to scorer. Inconsistent shooting last season marred him, going under 30 percent from the field in 11 games last season. He can step back and hit the three ball (33.5 percent last season) and also scored in the low-post. If his field goal percentage increases, he will be a handful for opposing defenses. In addition to scoring, Taylor also averaged 5.3 rebounds per game, second-best on the team.
Senior center Jordan Dickerson will have an increased roll with the loss of fellow big-man Ross Travis. At 7-1, the SMU transfer will have to build on his strong defensive and rebounding performance last season. He averaged a team-high 1.6 blocks per game and 3.3 rebounds in 17.1 minutes per game. With the interior physicality of the Big Ten, Dickerson is the key
Two incoming freshmen have a chance to make an instant impact. Small forward Josh Reaves, the 74th best player in ESPN’s Top 100 recruits of 2015, adds athleticism and versatility to the Lions roster. The Oak Hill Academy graduate is perhaps the most prominent recruit in program history. Forward Mike Watkins was ranked 90th in ESPN’s Top 100 and has the size and skill to play a major role this season. At 6-8, he has the ability to dominate in the paint on both sides of the court. These two can possibly develop into all-time school greats.
To describe the graduation of D.J. Newbill as a “key loss” is a gross understatement. Newbill, who led the Power-Five conferences in scoring with 20.7 points per game last season, finished his career as one of the best to ever don the blue and white. His scoring and ability to take over games will be extremely difficult to replace. While Newbill’s defense was spotty at times, he made up for it with the rest of his game. The Lions also lost its leader with his departure. Newbill now plays for ASVEL Basket in France.
Another key player lost to graduation is Ross Travis. The power forward out of Chaska, Minnesota led the team his senior year with 6.3 rebounds per game. He also chipped in 5.3 points per game. Travis’ athleticism allowed him to defend well on the perimeter and in the post. While his game did not translate to a professional career on the hardwood, he is currently attempting a career in the NFL as a tight end.
In a surprising off-season move, guard Geno Thorpe took his talents to South Florida. The lock-down defender was expected to see an increased offensive role this season. The team will miss his perimeter defense, hustle, and occasional three-pointer. While this loss hurts in the short-term, it does open up a roster spot for a future recruit.
Penn State finished tenth in the conference in points per game last season, and that was with the Big Ten’s leading scorer on its roster. The Nittany Lions shot a decent 42 percent from the field and 33 percent from beyond the arc. The team will need balanced scoring from multiple players in order to put quality points on the board.
Last season, Penn State finished ranked No. 50 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency, the best in school history. The loss of Thorpe and Travis should have an impact on the defensive end and on the boards. However, with Pat Chambers’ emphasis on hustle and toughness, the Lions should be able to make up for their abilities. The weakness in recent years has been foul trouble. If the Nittany Lions can keep teams off the charity stripe, the team should have an above-average defense.
The non-conference schedule is manageable but does present some tests. The November 17th matchup against DePaul should shed some light on the abilities Pat Chambers’ squad. Road trips to Boston College and George Washington pit the Lions against an ACC and a quality mid-major opponent.
The biggest challenge for Penn State will be the Vegas Classic. A first-round matchup versus a potential NCAA tournament team in Colorado will be very tough. Depending on the result of that game, the Lions will face either an extremely talented SMU side or Kent State. Nonetheless, the Vegas Classic should be a good preparation for conference play. If they can somehow win the early-season tournament, Penn State would have a lot of momentum leading into their next game: the Big Ten opener at Maryland. I predict losses to George Washington, Colorado, and Kent State.
Penn State’s conference slate will be a grind, as expected for a Big Ten team. The Nittany Lions face eight preseason Top 25 squads.
The first 11 conference games will be extremely difficult. Seven of those games are against ranked opponents, while the other four are against Minnesota, Northwestern, Ohio State, and Iowa, all tough matchups. The seven remaining games are easier, but a February 28th battle with Michigan State in East Lansing could prevent a possible winning streak. During that 11 game stretch, it seems highly unlikely that the Lions will do better than 2-9. Penn State could round out the season winning four of seven, ultimately finishing 6-12. That will put them around tenth in the Big Ten.
Coach's Hot Seat
Despite going 56-75 overall and 16-56 in conference at the helm in Happy Valley, Pat Chambers has generated more excitement around the program than it has ever seen. He is recruiting at a level unseen at Penn State. While his on-court production would typically warrant a firing, Athletic Director Sandy Barbour knows that Chambers’ just needs time. His 2015 class consisted of three players, two of which are ESPN Top 100 recruits. 2016 looks even better, as the Nittany Lions’ class is currently ranked 13th, according to 247 Sports. The group is headlined by Tone Carr, the top high school player in Pennsylvania. In addition, Chambers’ contract was extended last spring through 2019.
Even with a bad year, I don’t see Chambers being fired. In the next two seasons, however, he will be expected to succeed at a high level. The hot seat is starting to heat up, but is still lukewarm.
The loss of D.J. Newbill will be detrimental to this year’s campaign. The whole team needs to step it up on both sides of the ball in order to be competitive. The key pieces will carry a heavy burden. Role players such as Donovan Jack, Julian Moore, Devin Foster, and Payton Banks are guys the coaching staff will look at to be more than just serviceable. That being said, the abilities of Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins could be the season’s biggest story to follow.
This season could go downhill quickly. A home loss to DePaul is possible and would set the team off on the wrong foot. If the team can pull out a victory versus the Blue Demons, things could set up alright. I think the Nittany Lions will finish the non-conference schedule at 10-3 and conference play at 6-12. That equates to a 16-15 record, one that is heavily inflated by its non-Big Ten matchups. While many analysts are not expecting much from Pat Chambers’ squad, young talent will propel them to a winning record.
Jonathan Gross is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism and International Politics. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.