It’s finally here. College basketball season is upon us. Tonight, Penn State will open their season at the Bryce Jordan Center against St. Francis from just down I-99 in Loretto, Pa.
To some Penn Staters, this does not mean much. The men’s basketball program has long played second fiddle to the vaunted football program and other top-notch Nittany Lion squads like women’s volleyball and wrestling.
It’s not hard to understand why, either.
Penn State basketball has a history of mediocrity—especially the last decade. Since an improbable Sweet 16 run that included a win over North Carolina in 2001 when Jerry Dunn was still at the helm, the Nittany Lions have earned a trip to the NCAA tournament just once. Two horrendous 21-loss seasons followed the 2001 NCAA tournament run and Dunn resigned.
Ed DeChellis, a Penn State grad and long-time PSU assistant coach, took over for Dunn. DeChellis had his moments, but his tenure as Penn State coach was much like those before him: a few great seasons (NIT Championship, NCAA tournament appearance), a few awful seasons, and many mediocre ones in between.
During the DeChellis years, support for the program from the University administration was tepid at best. During the 2010-11 season, a season that would ultimately be DeChellis’s last in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions were forced out of their home practice facility at the Bryce Jordan Center during a crucial stretch of an eventual NCAA tournament run. The Lions were relegated to the IM building (equipped with crooked baskets!) so Bon Jovi could rehearse for an ensuing concert and also for the career fair. Yes, the career fair.
These issues of lack of support and the reasons for DeChellis’s subsequent departure have been speculated about at length. And with that tenuous history in the rear-view mirror, Penn State had to bring in a new head coach, a coach that could propel the program above their usual levels of mediocrity. With Patrick Chambers, it appears Penn State has their man.
Chambers’s first year at the helm was a struggle. He inherited DeChellis’ mostly talent-depleted roster and threw a group of untested young players into the fire of a Big Ten schedule. By most accounts, the Nittany Lions outperformed expectations by registering four conference victories and putting up a strong fight against several top tier opponents. Above all, Chambers instilled his brand of basketball upon his new players. Chambers is a perfectionist. He demands nonstop energy, effort and attitude.
It took time, but the players bought in.
With the majority of the team returning, coupled with Chambers and his staff’s relentless recruiting approach, Penn State should be primed to take the next step toward being a legitimate contender in the Big Ten. Chambers has done everything he can to raise awareness and fan interest in the program. He drove around campus giving out t-shirts in a Penn State golf cart. He dressed like Michael Mauti at pep rallies. He gave out free Big Macs at McDonalds.
Now, to really get butts in the seats at the Bryce Jordan Center, it’s time to win.
Penn State returns a majority of the team’s contributors from last season and are headlined by senior All-Big Ten point guard Tim Frazier. Frazier had an incredible season last year as he was elevated from a role player into the team’s go-to guy. Frazier was up to the challenge as he averaged 18.8 points per game (second in the Big Ten), 6.2 assists per game (first in the Big Ten) and 2.4 steals per game (second in the Big Ten).
Frazier will be joined in the back court by junior Jermaine Marshall. Marshall was plagued by inconsistent play for much of the season, but really seemed to take his game to the next level during the second half of conference play. In last year’s regular season finale, Marshall exploded for a 27-point performance against a ranked Michigan team. Chambers has said that “a light came on” for Marshall in the offseason. Expect to more consistency from Marshall this season, as well as an improved outside shot to go with his ability to get to the basket.
Former walk-on Nick Colella also returns for the Lions. The senior provided valuable minutes for the squad last year and provided a defensive intensity while providing a three point shooting threat. He connected at just a 24 percent clip from downtown, but provided scoring efforts of 11 points on the road against Indiana and 10 points at Iowa. Expect a more confident Colella this season and an improved outside shot as he provides 12-16 minutes per game.
The Nittany Lions came into the 2011 season with very little experience in the front court. The inexperience showed as none of the team’s returning forwards averaged more than 5 points per game. However, significant progress was evident as the season went on.
6-foot-8-inch sophomore Jon Graham missed time early last year due to a bout with mono. When he returned, he was thrust into the starting lineup and experienced some growing pains. He came on late in the year with two 10-point performances against Iowa and Northwestern as well as a great showing (9 points, 10 rebounds) against Wisconsin. Graham lost 15 pounds in the offseason and there was a noticeable bounce in his step in last weekend’s exhibition against Philadelphia University as he impressed with 16 points and 7 boards in just 19 minutes.
Redshirt junior Sasa Borovnjak came back from a serious knee injury last year and showed flashes of a polished inside game as he averaged 4.3 points per game while shooting 56.5 percent from the floor coming off the bench for the Nittany Lions. The 6′ 9″ Serbian never really seemed to trust his surgically-repaired knee, and Chambers has said that Borovnjak seems to trust his knee again. Borovnjak seems more mobile and should be a consistent contributor for Penn State.
Sophomore Ross Travis is a player to be excited about. He is an incredible athlete who showed explosion around the rim with some monstrous dunks. He is also a tenacious defender who, with his 6-feet-6-inch, 225-pound frame, can ably guard both inside and outside. Travis will definitely start for the Lions and Chambers has called him one of the most valuable players on the team. With an improved jump shot to add to his driving ability, Travis will be a player opposing teams should fear.
6′ 4″ guard D.J. Newbill headlines a group of newcomers that will bolster the Penn State roster this season. Newbill, a Philadelphia native, sat out last season after transferring from Southern Miss. In his only season there, Newbill made the All-Conference USA freshman team while averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. He, along with Marshall, will provide the Lions with a consistent scoring threat to take some of the defense’s attention away from Tim Frazier. Chambers has lauded Newbill’s toughness and “Philly Swagger.” He is only a redshirt sophomore and will be a cornerstone in the program’s growth.
Chambers’s first recruiting class features three solid prospects that should contribute right away. His first commitment came from 6′ 3″ Boston guard Akosa Maduegbunam. Maduegbunam has a smooth stroke from the outside and has a body ready for the rigors of Big Ten play. He struggled some in the exhibition last week. Look for Chambers to try to get Maduegbunam on the floor against some lower level non-conference competition to get the freshman’s confidence up. He should have a bright future in Happy Valley.
Forwards Brandon Taylor and Donovon Jack will provide some depth in the front court for Penn State. They both have diverse offensive games and are capable performers on the defensive glass. Taylor (6′ 7″, 235 pounds) has shown the ability to step out a stroke a three pointer while posting up a defender. He should be a mismatch problem for opponents for years to come.
Jack, a 6′ 9″, 205-pound lefty, boasts a polished low post game and a consistent jumper from 15 feet. He is deceptively athletic, can finish on the run and will provide a shot blocking threat off the bench.
The program also welcomed in a preferred walk-on transfer in junior Zach Cooper. Cooper transferred from Gulf Coast State College in Florida. He also played a season at Division III Alfred University in Western New York.
The roster is rounded out by 6′ 11″ sophomore Patrick Ackerman, the team’s tallest player. Ackerman received only 26 minutes of playing time in his freshman season, so Penn State fans have not seen much of his game. He is a scholarship player who could see some minutes off the bench for Penn State this season.
Also on the roster are walk-ons Alan Wisniewski and Kevin Montminy. Wisniewski, a junior 6′ 9″ forward, saw action in six games last season. Montminy, a sophomore guard from nearby Centre Hall, Pa., saw action in nine games last season and scored a bucket against Kentucky.
Mark Your Calendars – Best Home Games
- Wednesday, Nov. 28, 9:15 p.m. tip — Boston College, Big Ten/ACC challenge. BC is a rebuilding program with a second year coach much like Penn State. The Lions defeated Boston College on the road last year in the Big Ten/ACC challenge and will look to win the rematch in a game nationally televised on ESPNU. Penn State students who attend will receive a free PSU basketball snapback hat.
- Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, 7 p.m. — Indiana. Penn State’s Big Ten home opener will be against the preseason top-ranked Indiana Hoosiers. The Lions will have upset on their minds as the Hoosiers come to town. Students in attendance will receive a free rally towel and PSU basketball pinnie. Oh and it’s the second of five DOLLAR DOG NIGHTS.
- Saturday, Jan. 19, 1 p.m. — Nebraska. All student ticket proceeds will be donated to THON for THON Hoops Day.
- Saturday, Jan 26, Noon — Ohio State. Penn State will welcome the hated Buckeyes to town for a Saturday noon showdown. Fans will receive a free Tim Frazier poster. Game will be broadcasted on ESPN2.
- Thursday, Feb. 14, 8 p.m. — Iowa. Iowa will be good this year and the game will be on ESPNU but OH MY GOD THEY ARE SELLING HOT DOGS FOR TEN CENTS.
The Big Ten might be the best conference in the country. It will be a huge challenge for the Nittany Lions to finish in the top half of the standings. The Lions will be an improved squad — there’s no doubt about that. They’ll travel to San Juan for the Puerto Rico Challenge next week. This tournament will be a good barometer to assess where the Lions will stack up this season. The tournament features great competition with teams like NC State, Providence, UMass, and Tennessee.
Beyond that tournament, the non-conference schedule does not pose too many challenges for the Lions. It would surprise me if the team lost more than three games in the non-conference schedule. Hopefully some of the younger players will be acclimated to the speed of Division I basketball by the time the Big Ten schedule rolls around, and will be ready to contribute.
The addition of Newbill and the improvement of Marshall will open things up for Tim Frazier to have another phenomenal season. However, if the Lions don’t see consistent contributions from Graham, Borovnjak, and the freshmen down low, the team could rely too heavily on the jump shot. Newbill and Travis need to drive to the basket, while Marshall (who also can get to the rim) and Nick Colella provide a tangible three-point threats.
I really think the Nittany Lions will surprise some people this year. They won four games in the conference last year, and I think they have the talent and depth to potentially double that this year.
An NCAA tournament appearance is definitely wishful thinking and a long shot, but if the Lions avoid injuries, a trip to the NIT is not out of the question as Pat Chambers propels the program in a positive direction.