After a long season which featured a 10-21 record and a season-ending injury to one of the premier players in America, there is actually some excitement around Penn State men’s basketball. Of course, excitement in regards to Penn State basketball isn’t the same as, say, excitement around Kentucky or North Carolina basketball, but for the first time in a while, there is some optimism beyond free hat giveaways and dollar hot dog nights.
So what’s in store for the Nittany Lions this season?
This will be the strength of Penn State all season, and with good reason. The case can be made that the Nittany Lions will have the best backcourt in the Big Ten, and one of the premier backcourts in all of college basketball.
Everything starts with Tim Frazier. The redshirt senior is almost like Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, not in how he plays, but in that he’s been injured for so long that people don’t seem to remember how good this guy is at basketball.
The list of guards who are as versatile as Frazier is quite short. His ability to attack the rim and finish through contact is among the best in the country, he’s an excellent passer, and for someone who is 6’1″, Frazier is an excellent rebounder. Frazier is a pitbull on defense and the exact kind of player that you want leading your basketball team. While he may not need to average the 18.8 points, 6.2 assists, 4.7 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game that he averaged as a junior, he certainly has the talent to do it again.
Complementing Frazier will be redshirt junior D.J. Newbill. As anyone with some knowledge of Penn State basketball knows, Newbill was forced to play out of position once Frazier went down, and despite some early struggles, blossomed into one of the better point guards in the conference, averaging 16.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game.
This year, Newbill will slide off the ball and play his natural shooting guard position. He has been improving his jumper — Newbill shot an abysmal 26.7 percent from three last year — which would be a complement to an already diverse offensive game. Newbill is lethal out to 15-17 feet, and is excellent at drawing contact and finishing at the rim.
The bench will feature several intriguing players, including two transfers in John Johnson and Allen Roberts. Johnson is a combo guard whose best asset is his ability to score, especially from behind the arc. As a freshman at Pittsburgh, Johnson shot 40.2 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from three. However, he won’t be eligible until the conclusion of the fall semester due to NCAA transfer requirements.
Roberts is a graduate student from Miami (OH) who is immediately eligible to suit up for the Nittany Lions. While he isn’t the most refined scorer, he did average 12.3 points per game last season for the Red Hawks. Expect him to contribute off the bench, and be the team’s third guard at least until Johnson is eligible.
Penn State’s backcourt will be rounded out by two intriguing freshmen who may be able to contribute sooner rather than later, Geno Thorpe and Graham Woodward, and two walk-ons, Kevin Montminy and Zach Cooper.
If Penn State wants to potentially make the NCAA Tournament, it will come down to its frontcourt and how it develops during the season.
The projected starters are Donovon Jack at center and Ross Travis and Brandon Taylor at forwards. Travis is the only returning starter in that group, and easily the troika’s best rebounder and defender. While he isn’t the best offensive player, Travis is going to battle against everyone he is matched up against and outwork them. He averaged 7.0 points and 7.6 rebounds for Penn State last season, and is capable of guarding almost anyone on the other team.
Jack and Taylor were both freshmen who showed some promise last season, but lacked the refinement to become major contributors to a college basketball team. The two showed the ability to step out and knock down shots from 15 or more feet, and on occasion, showed some semblance of a low post game. The progression of these two players are more important than anyone else on the team. If Jack shows that he can play down low and defend big men, and Taylor shows that he cleaned up his jumper, Penn State may shock some people.
The team’s biggest frontcourt issue is its depth. After those three, Alan Wisniewski and two freshmen, Payton Banks and Julian Moore, are the only bigs on the roster. While Chambers will probably look to go small with his bevy of backcourt options a la his old Villanova teams, Penn State could really use some production from Banks, Moore, or Wisniewski.
Penn State’s 13 non-conference games are huge, because with how brutal the Big Ten is, the team needs to get as many wins as possible before facing the Michigan States and Indianas of the world every night. The schedule sets up nicely, and there’s a good chance that Penn State is 6-0 going into the Barclays Center Classic. Aside from the two games there and the game at Pitt, there isn’t a game out of conference that Penn State should lose. If the team can pull off one or two upsets, there’s a chance we see a 12-1 or 11-2 squad going into Big Ten play.
As for the Big Ten, it’s the best basketball conference in America, which doesn’t bode well for the Nittany Lions. Of the team’s 18 conference games, there are four games — home/away against Purdue, home against Nebraska, at Northwestern — that the team absolutely should win. Other than that, it’ll be difficult. Penn State certainly could win nine or 10 games in-conference, but it could just as easily win three or four. The number to remember is eight. If Penn State can win eight conference games, along with an 11-2 record out of conference, it can very well be a Tournament team if a few other things bounce their way.
Penn State struggles out of the gate as Tim Frazier gets back into game shape, but the team makes it to Barclays with a 6-0 record. After losing to St. John’s and beating Georgia Tech, the team goes to Pittsburgh, where they lose to the Panthers. The team breezes through the rest of non-conference play, where it finishes with an 11-2 record.
In conference, Penn State gets annihilated by Michigan State to start the season and drops four of its first five Big Ten games. However, the team responds, winning three out of four games against Purdue, Nebraska, Ohio State, and Purdue again. The team finds some swagger, pulls off four wins in its last nine games, and finishes the regular season 19-12 (8-10 in conference).
As for the postseason, the team should have a shot at either the NCAA Tournament or the NIT depending on how they do in the Big Ten Tournament and all of the usual factors that go into picking a tournament team. Tim Frazier is a first team All-Big Ten selection, Newbill is a second teamer, and Penn State finishes the season with its best team since 2010-11.