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Penn State Basketball Off To Best Start in Five Seasons: A Look Back at the Non-Conference Results

After its first 13 games of the season, the Penn State men’s basketball team is off to a 9-4 start, the best record since 2008-09, when the team went 11-2 out of conference and ended the season winning the NIT.

Like the 2008-09 squad, there is optimism as the team gets ready to kick off Big Ten play. It’s pretty easy to see why — the Nittany Lions have arguably the best backcourt in the Big Ten, an always developing frontcourt, and depth on the bench. Long story short, Patrick Chambers has more talent at his disposal this year than he has in his first two years in Happy Valley.

With half of the season gone, there aren’t that many questions involving the team, aside from the roles of its two transfers who have been eligible for one game, John Johnson and Jordan Dickerson. While Johnson squashed most questions about his role on the squad with his 20 point outburst in his first game for the Blue and White against Mount St. Mary’s, Dickerson’s role is still up in the air.

Other than that, there is no question about the roles of anyone on the squad. D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier are the unquestioned alpha dogs on the team, as evidenced by the fact that the two are the only teammates in the top 10 of scorers in the Big Ten — Newbill is first with 18.9 points per game, while Frazier is putting up 18.2 points a night. Frazier is also first in the conference by a wide margin with 7.5 assists per game, which is also the second highest tally in America.

After those two, Ross Travis, Brandon Taylor, Donovon Jack, and Allen Roberts have all taken turns being the team’s third option. Travis (11.3 points) and Taylor (10.8) are both averaging double digit scoring, while Jack and Roberts are both averaging 7.3 points a night. Travis is also fifth in the conference with 8.6 rebounds a night, while Jack is fifth in the Big Ten with 2.0 blocks per game.

The team has also received solid contributions in limited time from three freshmen: Graham Woodward, Geno Thorpe, and Julian Moore. However, it’s a safe assumption that the three of them will start to see less time with the additions of Johnson and Dickerson.

As for the team’s performance as a whole, well, it’s been rocky. Chambers told reporters in his press conference after the team’s 92-82 victory over Mount St. Mary’s that he’d give the team a B or a B-, but when Penn State is on, it looks much better than that. Of course, the inverse is also true, because when Penn State struggles — particularly at the end of games — it looks like the teams that have combined to go 22-40 in Chambers’ first two seasons in Happy Valley.

The team has played a brutal non-conference schedule, which has featured games against potential tournament teams like Ole Miss, St. John’s, Pitt, and Princeton. While Penn State has been in every game that it has played — four losses are only by an average of six points — its biggest issue is that the team has struggled to put away teams late in all four of its losses. In any case, the squad is the best in Chambers’ short time here, and there should be a measured dose of optimism going into conference play, which begins on Dec. 31 against the 5th ranked Michigan State Spartans.

With all that in mind, here are some milestones halfway through the year on a team and individual level:

Best Win: St. John’s

The Nittany Lions knocked off St. John’s, a team some people thought could win the Big East this season, 90-82 in its semifinal game of the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn. While there were certainly many encouraging things to take away from this win — particularly the fact that Frazier and Newbill combined to score 54 points — nothing was more encouraging than the fact that Penn State took the best punch from a likely tournament team and was still able to come out on top.

Honorable Mention: La Salle, 79-72

Worst Loss: Princeton

Duh. The Nittany Lions snatched defeat from the hands of victory, as they led by as many as 20 points in the second half before the Tigers — who are actually a really good basketball team — went on a 26-8 run to close out the second half, force overtime, and eventually win. I don’t want to talk about this ever again.

(Dis)Honorable Mention: Bucknell, 90-80

MVP: Tim Frazier

Pretty easy. While Newbill has been brilliant this year, averaging 19 points and 6.2 boards per game on 51.3 percent shooting and 42.6 percent shooting from downtown, Frazier has been a monster. He’s impacting the game on offense (18.4 points and 7.6 assists a night) and defense (3.8 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game), as well as being a coach on the floor and the team’s vocal leader. You could say he’s an All-American. I wouldn’t disagree.

Honorable Mention: Newbill

Most Improved: Donovon Jack

Jack looked completely lost at times last year. The then-freshmen had a hard time getting time with Sasa Borovnjak, Jon Graham, Taylor, and Travis establishing themselves as the main guys in the frontcourt. This year, Jack has looked far more refined on offense as an inside/out big man who can score down low or from the perimeter, as evidenced by his 47.4 percent shooting from downtown. He’s also swatting shots left an right, and while he still needs to improve as a rebounder, he has gotten better in that department.

Honorable Mentions: Travis, Taylor

Best Freshman: Geno Thorpe

This award is difficult, because Graham Woodward has established himself as a potential marksman from downtown. However, the ultra-talented Thorpe has worked his way into the rotation as a defensive stopper and someone who can score if he absolutely needs to. His development is one of the more intriguing subplots to watch during the second half of the season.

Honorable Mention: Woodward

One Burning Question: Can this team defend the three?

Teams are shooting 34.7 percent from downtown against the Nittany Lions, which is the worst 3-point field goal percentage defense in the Big Ten and in a tie for 205th nationally. You can argue that in at least three of the team’s losses — Bucknell, Ole Miss, and Princeton — the main reason the team didn’t come out on top is that the other team got hot from behind the arc. Of course, those teams are, respectively, 10th, 69th, and 50th in the country in three point shooting percentage nationally, but you don’t get to be 205th nationally because of poor performance in three games. If Penn State can solve this issue, this could be a special season in Happy Valley.

Honorable Mentions: Will people actually go to games? What roles will the transfers play? Is Tim Frazier an All-American? Who is the team’s third scoring option?

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