Could Penn State hoops have made the NCAA tournament this year?
Yes — I think the Nittany Lions would have been a dangerous tournament bubble team, at the very least, if it wasn’t for a few key roster changes that most notably saw the program lose Jermaine Marshall to Arizona State, where the graduate student guard scored 15.1 points per game on his way to an NCAA tournament appearance with the Sun Devils.
In addition, Penn State was unable to retain its best post scorer, Sasa Borovnjak, who chose to play professional basketball in Spain and Greece, and its best post defender, Jon Graham, who transferred to Maryland. All three players would have been eligible to play for the Lions this past season.
Not coincidentally, three of Penn State’s biggest needs this season were a consistent second option on the wing (Marshall), a consistent interior scoring presence (Borovnjak) and a consistent interior defensive presence (Graham).
The Lions attempted to replace Marshall and Graham by bringing in transfers Allen Roberts, a graduate student guard from Miami (OH), and Jordan Dickerson, a sophomore center from Southern Methodist University who was ruled eligible shortly before conference play began this past season. There was no player on the roster this year similar to Borovnjak, but some of his lost production was offset by second-year forward Donovon Jack’s promotion to starter.
Let’s see how those moves worked out, shall we? (Hint: they didn’t.)
Marshall vs. Roberts, Thorpe, Johnson, and Woodward
Marshall had initially forgone his final year of eligibility to pursue a professional basketball career in Europe, primarily because he wanted to financially provide for his infant son, according to the team. However, after his pro prospects sizzled, he decided to return to college and exercised his graduate student exception to play for Arizona State.
Was there any possibility that Marshall would have stayed at Penn State? Without having heard his conversations with Coach Patrick Chambers, there’s no way to know, but if you take Chambers’ word for it, it seems like the program made every effort to bring back its second-leading scorer in 2012-2013. “We expressed to [Marshall] that we wanted him to stay,” he said to the Associated Press, “but we understand why he made the decision [to leave].”
What we do know is that the program had two windows of opportunity to convince Marshall to stay: before May 15, when he first decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to pursue a professional basketball career (to earn money for his family), and before June 17, a month later, when he opted to stay in college and transfer. If Chambers had been been able to persuade Marshall to delay his pursuit of a pro career in the first place — after all, he ended up changing his mind — he could have been given the scholarship eventually awarded to Roberts. Even after Roberts transferred to Penn State on June 4, the Nittany Lions still would had an open scholarship available, which was eventually given to little-used senior forward Alan Wisniewski.
Last Thursday, Marshall scored 17 points in 10th-seeded Arizona State’s near-upset of 7th-seeded Texas, 87-85, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He was the Sun Devils’ second-leading scorer this past season after averaging 15.1 points per game on a career-high 44.7 percent shooting from the floor and 40.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc.
Penn State, on the other hand, operated at the second wing position (opposite D.J. Newbill) with a platoon of players, consisting of mainly Roberts at the beginning of the season, freshman Graham Woodward in the middle and more of freshman Geno Thorpe and sophomore Pitt transfer John Johnson toward the end. Here’s how their production compared to Marshall’s this past season*:
I’m not suggesting that, per 40 minutes, Penn State would have scored an additional 7.7 points with Marshall in the lineup in place of Roberts, Thorpe, Johnson and Woodward. It’s not like the other guards on the roster wouldn’t have contributed in some way with Marshall in the fold. However, it’s evident that Marshall made more out of his opportunities with the ball in his hands, as he converted on 5.1 percent more of his shot attempts and 7 percent more of his 3-point attempts than Penn State’s quartet of guards.
This disparity is understandable for the Lions, given that they were playing two true freshman (Thorpe and Woodward) alongside an inexperienced sophomore known more for his ability to score rather than his scoring efficiency (Johnson). And it’s likely that Marshall’s quality of production at Arizona State benefited from the opposing defensive attention drawn by Jahii Carson, one of the better scoring point guards in the country, and Jordan Bachynski, a 7-foot-2 post threat that is projected to be drafted in the second round of the upcoming NBA draft.
But it’s a no brainer that Marshall’s presence could have gone a long way in ameliorating Penn State’s third-worst scoring offense (in conference play) by field goal percentage (40.6 percent) and the second-worst 3-point offense by percentage (29.4) that nevertheless attempted the fifth-highest number of threes in the Big Ten.
Borovnjak vs. Jack
Per Tim Neverett of ESPN, Borovnjak and Chambers made a “mutual decision” last season for the then-redshirt junior forward to forgo his final year of eligibility. This move made sense for the program at the time, because it was then overcommitted by two scholarships for the 2013-2014 season. (This scholarship snafu was resolved by Borovnjak’s departure, and the transfers of Graham, forward Pat Ackerman, and guard Akosa Maduegbunam.)
And it made sense for Borovnjak, too, since he was 24 with a degree and had the chance to play professionally; in lieu of spending a final year with the Nittany Lions, the Serbian big man played professional basketball for Greek and Spanish clubs this past year.
However, if Penn State had been able to keep Borovnjak, he would have filled the team’s glaring need for a consistent post scorer. Jack and fellow sophomore forward Brandon Taylor showed some back-to-the-basket scoring ability this past year, but both players were inconsistent in that aspect of their respective games and played as outside shooters, first.
So how did the Nittany Lions fare at the scoring power forward position without Borovnjak? Since he played alongside Taylor last season and the latter’s playing time only increased by 4.6 minutes a game this year, I’ve chosen to compare Borovnjak (using statistics from his final season of collegiate play in 2012-2013) to the player that received the bulk of his minutes on the 2013-2014 roster, Jack:
At first glance, Borovnjak’s and Jack’s season numbers look fairly similar, with the former converting his shot attempts at a significantly higher rate and the latter getting the edge in the rebounds and blocks department. However, the season averages mask the fact that Borovnjak posted his best performances down the stretch in conference play, notably averaging 13.7 points in three games against Michigan, while Jack started strong in the nonconference season but sputtered when facing the higher level of competition in the Big Ten.
Does Jack offer more than Borovnjak from beyond the arc? Yes, but by default, since the latter is not a stretch-4 and attempted only two 3-pointers in his entire Penn State career. And Jack’s 30.6 percent long-range shooting percentage, unimpressive to begin with, was marred by a 13-game cold shooting streak that saw the sophomore forward make just two of his last 27 3-point attempts.
Maybe Chambers wanted to change the style of play of his big men this year, using Jack’s and Taylor’s long-range shooting ability to open up the floor. But whether that was an intentional switch to explore new ways to score or a method of compensating for a lack of an interior scoring presence without Borovnjak, Penn State could have at least used him as a back-to-the-basket scoring option to diversify the Nittany Lions’ offensive attack.
Borovnjak would have been valuable to the Nittany Lions this season as a post scorer — certainly more valuable than Jack was in such a role. The team should have been able to keep him, too, using the scholarship that was eventually given to Wisniewski.
As a plus, Borovnjak wouldn’t have replaced Jack, per se. Both players could have remained on the roster, and their styles of play are different enough that they could have filled complementary rather than competing roles on this year’s Penn State squad.
Graham vs. Dickerson
Graham-to-Dickerson is a dicier comparison to make without a readily available metric on both players’ most important contributions, interior defensive presence. Blocks per game tell some of the story, and the 7-foot Dickerson wins easily in this department, but they account for only part of the quality of a big man’s play. Let’s compare what we can measure, first — both players’ statistics for the 2013-2014 season:
By the numbers, Graham is a significantly better rebounder than Dickerson, which the film would likely confirm, as the latter doesn’t exactly have the best hands in the world. Offensively, neither player is very good, but Graham gets the slight edge in points per 40 minutes.
What shows up outside of the statistics is a better indicator of Graham’s value to his team relative to Dickerson, though. The former, a 6-foot-8 forward, is a solid post defender with a much stronger base than the 7-foot Dickerson, whose wiry frame gets pushed around consistently in the low post. Graham’s defensive awareness is also superior to that of Dickerson, who is often caught out of position on the court.
Dickerson, to put it nicely, is an extremely raw prospect, and understandably so. He played just 92 minutes with SMU during his freshman year before being thrust into the fire this year with the Nittany Lions, a game before their conference opener against then 5th-ranked Michigan State, after the NCAA unexpectedly granted him eligibility for the remainder of the season. He struggled early on to acclimate to Big Ten play, often to the very audible frustration of the coaching staff on game days, but managed to improve as the season progressed.
The 7-foot center probably has greater upside than Graham, sure. But for Penn State to have contended for the NCAA tournament this year, it might have been better to go with the surefire short-term solution in Graham than the boom-or-bust option in Dickerson.
What could have been
This was Nittany Lions’ year to win, with Tim Frazier in his final year of eligibility and Newbill reaching the prime of his college career. However, after seeing three proven contributors in Marshall, Borovnjak and Graham walk, the team ended up having to play its inexperienced young players in lieu of possibly contending for a postseason appearance in a tournament more prestigious than the CBI.
In an ideal world, if the program could have planned for Marshall stay from the beginning, Penn State could have kept the graduate student guard, Borovnjak, and Graham, using the scholarships currently held by Roberts, Wisniewski and Dickerson. With the additional outside scoring output in Marshall, a credible interior scoring threat in Borovnjak, and a solid defensive post player in Graham, it’s not inconceivable to think that the Nittany Lions would have flipped their close losses into wins and earned a berth in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Penn State, which faces Siena tonight in the second round of the CBI, has a good shot at winning that tournament’s crown as the highest-ranked team by RPI left in contention. But with Marshall, Borovnjak, and Graham, the Lions may well have been playing in the Big Dance this March Madness.