This was supposed to be the year.
Penn State basketball was supposed to do something this year. It was supposed to be a team that made the NCAA Tournament or the NIT, a team led by the best backcourt in America, a deep bench, and, for the first time in his Penn State tenure, a team consisting mostly of Pat Chambers players.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, the team was plagued by issues with inconsistency. Every time it looked like Penn State was about to figure things out or showed flashes of greatness, something happened that messed it all up. Whether it was Penn State going cold from the field, the other team shooting the lights out of the gym, or a combination of both, everything would go wrong for the Nittany Lions.
That’s not to say there were some positives with this team. It just didn’t reach its expectations this year. Nothing more, nothing less. There were plenty of bright spots, but as the team’s record showed, they were outnumbered by dark spots.
The team’s season has been over for a little more than week. Let’s take a look back on the 2013-14 Penn State Nittany Lion basketball team.
This was, undoubtedly, the best thing Penn State had going for it in 2013-14. While D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier weren’t the best backcourt in America, it was probably one of the best five or 10.
While Frazier ran the point, the team ran through Newbill, who was brilliant this season. Free of the constraints of being the team’s point guard, Newbill was first on the team in points per game (17.8) and second on the team in rebounds (4.9), assists (1.7), and steals (0.8) per game.
Most importantly, Newbill established himself as the team’s alpha dog in big moments. That doesn’t mean he took and made clutch shots with no time left — although he did do that — but any time there was a moment of uncertainty, or any time when the game would get to be too big for the other four guys on the court, Newbill settled things. I guess everything I’ve said about Newbill can be summed up succinctly: the dude is awesome at basketball.
While Newbill took a big leap forward, Frazier took a step back. That’s not all Frazier’s fault, as there were several factors that contributed to this. The players around him were the best since his sophomore campaign, and he was coming off of arguably the hardest injury a basketball player can sustain, a torn Achilles.
Despite that, Frazier had a solid season. Not the great season we’ve come to expect from him, but a solid one nonetheless. The redshirt senior put up 14.9 points, 5.4 assists, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.6 steals a night. He was still the team’s vocal leader, and more often than not he played well, even if his performance on the court didn’t always reach the lofty goals he set for himself.
Penn State’s bench rotation was made up of four people: Graham Woodward, Geno Thorpe, Allen Roberts (for the first half of the season), and John Johnson (for the second half of the season).
Let’s start with the good: Woodward and Thorpe both flashed potential as impact players as the season progressed. Woodward led the team in three point shooting, canning 39 percent of his shots from downtown, and got a few starts due to injuries. There is a chance that he is the team’s starting point guard next year. As for Thorpe, he was the team’s best on-ball defender and showed flashes of a solid offensive game toward the end of the season.
For Roberts and Johnson, it’s tough to accurately judge them. Both played approximately half of the season, and both were wildly up-and-down. While both guys showed that they could be volume scorers, they also had issues with consistency, and neither guy shot higher than 38 percent from the field or 32 percent from three.
Luckily for Penn State, three of the four guys in this unit are returning, and should benefit from increased roles next year. Giving the unit a grade is tough. While it had flashes of excellence, it also struggled at times. Let’s just split the difference.
For most of the year, the frontcourt consisted of Donovon Jack, Brandon Taylor, and Ross Travis. There were some variations — like when Travis was moved to the bench due to an illness/to give Woodward and Thorpe more time, and when Jordan Dickerson took over for Jack — but for the most part, it was that troika.
Ross Travis did Ross Travis things. He was a pitbull on defense, led the team in rebounding with 7.0 boards a night, and continued to improve offensively. He still needs to get better on offense, but with another year to work and a bigger role, it’s not inconceivable to expect that he’s going to get even better on that side of the court.
Taylor was the team’s third leading scorer, averaging 9.2 points per game. He was arguably the team’s most important player, as the Nittany Lions were 11-3 when Taylor registered double-digit scoring. Unfortunately, Taylor struggled to find his identity as a basketball player. He shot the most threes on the team (143) and shot 32.2 percent from downtown, but he proved to be a solid low post-to-mid-range player. Like Travis, he needs to mature offensively, and should over the offseason.
Finally, there is Jack. The poor guy’s season went into a tailspin during Penn State’s conference schedule. Here’s proof: in the non-conference, Jack shot 47.4 percent from three. At season’s end, Jack’s three point shooting percentage was 30.2 percent. Jack also averaged 3.8 rebounds per game, which isn’t exactly what you want from your starting center. He just lacked confidence as the season went on.
Ok, so this is where the team was really bad. Really, that’s always the issue with a guard-oriented team: bench big men usually lose out on time to guards in an attempt to play small.
The only frontcourt player on the bench who really made an impact was Jordan Dickerson, and he really shouldn’t have played this season. You may remember that, in a surprise move, the NCAA granted him eligibility during the spring semester.
His season was that of a player who wasn’t quite ready to play yet. For every amazing block or highlight dunk, he would be caught out of position or fail to corral a rebound. Going into next year, look for him to make a big jump. He’s so talented that he could potentially be a really exciting player. Of course, as with any big man that oozes potential, he could flame out. Let’s hope for the former.
The other bench big men to get time were Alan Wisniewski and Julian Moore. Wisniweski averaged 4.4 minutes per game in 20 games, while Moore played in seven games before Chambers redshirted him.
Penn State got off to its best non-conference start since 2008-09, going 9-4 with losses against Bucknell — who put on maybe the best shooting performance I’ve ever seen — Ole Miss, Pitt, and Princeton. Let’s never talk about the loss to Princeton again, cool? Cool.
Once Big Ten play started, the Nittany Lions just looked off. The potent offense that gave fans so much hope during the non-conference slate disappeared after a big first half in its first conference game against Michigan State. The team ended up losing six straight games to kick off Big Ten play.
And then…something clicked. For three games, Penn State went from a team that struggled to close out games to a team that had a ton of confidence in the final minutes. It beat two NCAA Tournament teams — Nebraska and Ohio State, the latter on the road — and whipped Purdue by 11.
The rest of the season was plagued with inconsistency. Penn State went 3-6 down the stretch in conference play, beating Ohio State at home and Indiana and Northwestern on the road. The Northwestern game was an absolute drumming, as Penn State won by 27 points.
But no matter what, every time Penn State took a step forward, it would take two steps back. Win at Indiana? Follow that up with losses to Iowa and Nebraska. Crush Northwestern? Follow that up with an egg against Minnesota.
Regardless, Penn State finished 15-16 (6-12) in the regular season. It went into the first round of the Big Ten Tournament with a rematch of its regular-season finale against Minnesota. The game was closer than the 18-point loss in Minneapolis, but Penn State couldn’t pull it out, falling in round one, 63-56.
The team’s NCAA Tournament hopes were gone. The loss crushed whatever (slim) chance there was of an NIT birth. Luckily there was one tournament left, the NIT, but would it take a school from a major conference with a sub-.500 record and a .333 conference winning percentage?
As it turns out, Penn State got selected. Despite “approaching this like we’re in the NCAA Tournament,” according to Pat Chambers, the team played poorly in both games. The Nittany Lions struggled against Hampton, 69-65, then got bounced in the second round of the tournament against Siena, 54-52. It sucked. A lot of people argued it was an embarrassing way to go out, but if we’re being honest, no matter who you lose to, if you’re a college basketball program in the CBI and you don’t win the whole tournament, it’s a disappointment.
For a team that had realistic NIT and lofty but reachable NCAA Tournament hopes this season, Penn State underachieved. It had plenty of high points, and plenty of things that lead me to believe the team will be solid next year — for example, if D.J. Newbill doesn’t score 20 points per game and get first team All-Big Ten honors I’m going to be devastated.
However, for every peak, there were one or two valleys. For every awesome thing the team did, it did something incredibly stupid. It’s a team that will return basically everyone other than Frazier, so maybe next year, we’re going to see a Penn State squad that learned from its mistakes this year en route to something great.
Unfortunately, next year doesn’t matter. What mattered was 2013-14, and while it wasn’t a complete failure, the team’s performance failed to live up to expectations.