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Onward Debates: Can Men’s Basketball Make the NCAA Tournament?

With a loaded backcourt led by Tim Frazier and DJ Newbill, two of the best guards in the Big Ten, things are looking up for Penn State men’s basketball for the first time since 2010-11. In other words, expectations for this year exceed the usual “Penn State will win two conference games and finish last.”

With that in mind, we posed the following question for debate: can this year’s team make it to the NCAA Tournament? Sure, the season starts on Saturday, and March is a long way away, but it’s never too early to talk basketball.

So You’re Telling Me There’s a Chance? — Bill DiFilippo

We have a decade of evidence that college basketball is becoming a guard-oriented game. A team doesn’t necessarily need two 7’1” bruisers down low to be successful if it has depth and talent in its backcourt.

I believe this trend will benefit the Nittany Lions this year. The team could very well have the best starting backcourt in the Big Ten, and once Pitt transfer John Johnson becomes eligible at the end of the semester, the team will have four guards capable of going off for 20 points any night in Tim Frazier, D.J. Newbill, Miami (OH) transfer Allen Roberts, and Johnson.

Factor in the team’s two freshmen, Geno Thorpe and Graham Woodward, who have supposedly looked fantastic so far — especially Thorpe, who CBS Sports college hoops writer Jon Rothstein called a “hidden gem” — and that’s potentially six guards for Pat Chambers to use at his disposal.

Of course, having a ton of guards doesn’t necessarily mean the coach will know how to use them correctly. Luckily, Chambers was an assistant coach under arguably the most important team for college basketball’s recent guard evolution: the 2005-06 Villanova Wildcats. Guards Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Mike Nardi, and Allan Ray carried the team to an Elite Eight appearance, and while I don’t think Penn State is close to as talented as that squad, I think the team has enough to make some noise this year and the perfect coach to lead them.

As for the front court, listen, I get it. Donovon Jack, Brandon Taylor, Ross Travis, and Alan Wisniewski aren’t exactly All-American big men. I don’t think that matters. The unit doesn’t need to be good, it just needs to be good enough. And I think it will be good enough. Travis is one of the best rebounders and defenders in the Big Ten, and if Jack can just be a competent center — he doesn’t even have to be a good one — it would help the Nittany Lions tremendously.

However, as we saw during the team’s exhibition game against Northwood, the frontcourt could be better than competent. During the game, Travis showed that he is still one of the premier rebounders in the Big Ten and that he has a more refined offensive game than he did last year. Also, Taylor showed the potential to become a lethal stretch-4, making 40 percent of his threes during the game. If those performances weren’t a flash in the pan, but rather a sign of things to come, look out.

No Penn State team has had this much talent since the 2010-11 squad that made it to the Big Ten Tournament finals and the NCAA Tournament. I don’t know if I’m willing to say that this is a tournament squad, since there are still some issues in the frontcourt and the Big Ten is one of the two best conferences in college basketball, but I am willing to say that this team can get there if all goes right.

If Frazier can find his 2011-12 form, if Newbill can build on last season’s breakout year, and if the transfers and freshmen in the backcourt are as good as advertised, this is a team that absolutely could go dancing.

No Chance in Hell — Zach Berger

There is no chance in hell that this Nittany Lions basketball team is making it to the tournament this year. I say this with a heavy heart, because I’m still hurting from that 2011 loss to Temple in which Juan Fernandez hit a near buzzer beater to end Penn State’s season in the first round.

The team might actually have some depth this season if transfers and newcomers pan out and make an immediate impact, but the potential for depth doesn’t replace a lack of talent on the frontcourt. Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill might be the best guard combo in the conference. Newbill has shown great signs of improvement and Frazier is one of the better point guards in the nation.

What Penn State has in the small men, it lacks in the big men. A trio of Donovon Jack, Ross Travis, and Brandon Taylor is hardly intimidating for opposing frontcourts.

Travis can rebound, which is something the Nittany Lions need, but isn’t going to dominate opposing power forwards and is undersized. He’s the best player that Penn State has in the frontcourt. But then there’s Brandon Taylor, a 6-7 player that’s set to be Penn State’s starting power forward this season. That’s a scary thought.

In 20 minutes of play last season, Taylor averaged just 3.3 rebounds and doesn’t do much in terms of putting points on the scoreboard. He was only a freshman, so there are improvements to be made, but when your frontcourt is already an unimpressive unit and one of your starting big men likes to take three-pointers more often than he likes to play under the basket, that isn’t boding well for your team as a whole.

In Sunday’s exhibition against Northwood, Taylor scored 15 points, but attempted 10 of his 12 shots from three-point range. He shot well, but Pat Chambers wasn’t exactly happy after the game about Taylor chucking up some NBA-length threes when the team could use him under the hoop.

This team has potential, but a rough conference schedule will squash any hopes of a tournament run this season. The Big Ten has established itself as one of the best basketball conferences in the nation. Penn State has to play a No. 2 Michigan State team twice this season. Ohio State, coming in at No. 11, shows up twice on the schedule as well.

The Nittany Lions will face No. 7 Michigan on the road and No. 20 Wisconsin at the Bryce Jordan Center. Indiana isn’t the great team that it was last year as it lost a number of starters to the NBA, but the Hoosiers are still good enough to handily take care of Penn State.

The Nittany Lions will be better than last season. They won’t win just 10 games and two conference matchups again, but they probably won’t break .500 either. This season will be a good building block for Pat Chambers and the Penn State basketball program as he looks to bring them up to par with the rest of the conference, but there won’t be any March basketball for this team.

I hope the Nittany Lions prove me wrong, but I would be extremely surprised if they do.

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