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about 4 months ago

Penn State Basketball Looks Ahead Toward Big Ten Schedule

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A few days ago, we looked back on Penn State basketball’s performance during its non-conference schedule. The team is off to its best start since 2008-09, but it’s easy to argue that it could be even better. Tim Frazier has been historically great (we’ll get to that a bit later), D.J. Newbill has thrived without the added stress of being the team’s point guard, and most of the team’s role players have developed nicely from last season.

With all that in mind, here are eight questions the team needs to answer heading into Big Ten play, which begins on Tuesday when the Nittany Lions host 5th ranked Michigan State.

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1) Who is the team’s third scorer?

Through 13 games, nobody has any idea who Penn State’s third offensive option is after Frazier and Newbill. Ross Travis, Donovon Jack, Allen Roberts, Brandon Taylor, and John Johnson have all taken turns being the team’s third scorer, but for the most part, it’s been Frazier and Newbill doing everything and hoping someone else steps up. That’s fine, because the two of them have been brilliant this season, but it’s rare that a basketball team can have any kind of sustain success if it relies on two guys to do all the work.

The two most likely options are Travis and Johnson. Travis’s improvement on the offensive end has been remarkable this season — he averaged 7.0 points on 35.1 percent shooting and 12.5 percent shooting from downtown last year, and is averaging 11.8 points on 48.2 percent shooting and 31.8 percent shooting from deep. While most of his points last year came on put backs, his offensive game is much more refined this year, as he has shown a low post game, the ability to slash and put the ball on the floor, and an improved jumper.

As for Johnson, he’s still a question mark, but if his first game is any indication, he’s going to be an impact guy sooner rather than later. Johnson is arguably the team’s best outside shooter, and for a guy who has only played one game, he has the confidence and leadership of a veteran.

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2) Can Tim Frazier keep up his All-American pace?

Frazier is averaging 18.2 points, 7.5 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and 1.8 steals per game. Since 2003-04, two other college basketball players have averaged at least 18 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds, and a steal in a season. That’s it. If you put Frazier in a Michigan State or a North Carolina jersey, he’s a National Player of the Year candidate. Instead, he plays for Penn State, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s an All-American right now.

While the competition will be tougher now that Big Ten play is starting, Frazier is locked in, and with the addition of Johnson, it’s not crazy to think that Frazier keeps up that pace. You can even make the case that Frazier’s the best pure point guard in America.

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3) Can D.J. Newbill keep up his torrid shooting?

Logic would dictate that as the season goes on and the level of competition increases, Newbill’s shooting will decrease. This is incredibly unfortunate, because Newbill has been fantastic from the field this season. In 2012-13, Newbill was in no way an efficient shooter: 40.5 percent from the field, 26.7 percent from three, and 68.4 percent from the free throw line. During the offseason, he retooled his shot, and the results so far have been incredible — 51.2 percent from the field, 42.6 percent from three, and 73 percent from the stripe en route to leading the Big Ten with 18.9 points per game.

It’ll be hard for Newbill to keep this pace up, but if he does, he’ll be one of the best players in the conference.

Photo: Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Photo: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

4) How will John Johnson and Jordan Dickerson be incorporated into the rotation?

There are two schools of thought with these two. The first one is that they will be rusty and struggle competing in the Big Ten. The other is that they’ll be fresh, as they haven’t had to play this season and will be more aggressive during the Big Ten slate.

Johnson’s role is a bit easier to define: He’s going to be the team’s third or fourth guard, and his job is to keep the offense afloat when Frazier and/or Newbill are on the bench. As for Dickerson, he’s still incredibly raw, but with his size, strength, and ability to alter shots down low, he can be the defensive yin to Jack’s offensive yang. At worst, he can give Jack/Taylor/Travis rest and be used in situations where Penn State needs to foul people.

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5) Can Penn State defend the three?

After 13 non-conference games, Penn State is allowing opponents to shoot 34.7 percent from downtown, which is the worst in the Big Ten. The team’s inability to defend the three has played a major role in its losses to Bucknell, Ole Miss, and Princeton, and has indirectly caused Penn State to allow 73.2 points per game, a mark that is also worst in the Big Ten. The most concerning thing is not that teams are shooting at a jaw-dropping clip against the Nittany Lions, it’s that these looks are usually uncontested, and sometimes wide open.

The biggest issue is that the Big Ten features some of the premier shooting teams in the country — like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa, all of which are in the top-75 nationally in three point field goal percentage. Like Bucknell, Ole Miss, and Princeton, these teams don’t have one or two guys who can stroke it from downtown, it’s a team effort. Given Penn State’s difficulties defending the three, it’s hard to see the team immediately improving its three point defense in such a short time.

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6) Can Penn State keep up on the glass?

Here’s a misconception about basketball: The team that grabs the most rebounds wins. Just look at Penn State/Princeton, where the Nittany Lions out-rebounded the Tigers by 22 and lost. Penn State is 111th nationally with 37.4 rebounds per game, which is good but a bit misleading.

Instead, look at the team’s rebound percentages — a metric that looks at how many rebounds a team grabs based on how many opportunities come up in a game. The Nittany Lions are grabbing 72.7 percent (362 of a possible 498) of all defensive rebounds and 28.7 percent (124 of 432) of all offensive rebounds. Those marks are respectively fourth and tenth in the conference.

While the defensive rebound percentage is optimistic, the team could afford to get a bit better on the offensive glass. If Penn State can grab even one of every three possible offensive rebounds, it would move into the top half of the Big Ten and solve one of the team’s biggest questions.

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7) Will Penn State survive the Big Ten?

You can argue pretty easily that the Big Ten is the best or the second best conference of America. This hurts a team like Penn State, which needs to have a strong in-conference showing if it wants to make it to the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.

Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they are better while much of the conference is down. It would be a disaster if the team didn’t at least double its two Big Ten wins from last season. According to college hoops statistician Ken Pomeroy, Penn State is the ninth best team in the conference, but it is the Big Ten’s second least lucky squad. It’s fitting then that Penn State only gets to play Northwestern and Michigan — the two teams with the worst RPI in the conference from the out-of-conference schedule — one time each this season because of the schedule rotation. There’s obviously still a lot to be decided, and with Purdue looking beatable and a decent chance to pick up two wins against Nebraska, there should be plenty of opportunities for the Nittany Lions if they take advantage of them.

If a few things bounce Penn State’s way in Big Ten play, it could easily win at least seven conference games.

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8) What are Penn State’s odds at making a postseason tournament?

Let’s say Penn State has NCAA Tournament aspirations. To make it, the team would likely need at least 17 regular season wins — one of which is against a top 25 team — and a few wins in the conference tournament. To achieve 17 wins, the team would need to go 8-10 in the conference. Of course, it’s very rare that a team goes sub-.500 in its conference and still makes the tournament, like Illinois did last season. This means Penn State would likely need to win at least two Big Ten Tournament games, which is probably more difficult than going 8-10.

As for the NIT, the Nittany Lions could go 7-11 in the Big Ten, win 16 games, win its first Big Ten Tournament game, and make it in. It’s not as glamorous as an NCAA Tournament birth, but it’s something.

In other words, we’re going to make a run at, well, something. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts.

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