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Penn State Men’s Basketball Season Preview

By Ben Berkman (BB), Noel Purcell (NP), David Abruzzese (DA), Jake Somerville (JS), C.J. Doon (CJ), Stephane Hardinger (SH), and Alex Robinson (AR). 

This is not your father’s Penn State basketball team. Sporting one of the best guards in the country, two lockdown defenders, elite shot blocking potential and tons of young talent, the fourth year of Pat Chambers’ tenure looks ready to be the best one by far. There are a litany of factors that will ultimately determine whether the BJC will become a basketball mecca for the first time since Talor Battle left campus. As such, we have created a comprehensive preview for the upcoming season to provide our readers with all the knowledge needed to follow the Nittany Lions like an expert this year. It’s finally basketball season in Happy Valley, and everything you need to be prepared for it is right here.

Player Breakdown:

#0 Payton Banks: Payton Banks brings a versatile dynamic to the Penn State bench, as the 6-foot-6, 220 pound combo guard will provide a mix of shooting prowess and athleticism. Despite playing guard at Orange Lutheran High School, the redshirt freshman will provide forward depth, playing mostly as a winger. Banks can hit a shot from almost anywhere, and excels at finding the pass in transition. He’s a tenacious rebounder as well, and isn’t afraid to take the ball to the rim himself. Banks hustles everything out, and can fly down the court thanks to his ridiculous athleticism. He will gain valuable experience playing behind players like Brandon Taylor and D.J. Newbill, and looks to be a key fixture in Pat Chambers’ rotation. — DA

#1 John Johnson: Johnson, a Pitt transfer, burst onto the court in his first game of eligibility. After sitting out most of the non-conference season due to transfer restrictions, the now-senior combo guard torched Mount Saint Mary’s for 20 points. With the students gone for the holidays, few people witnessed Johnson express a mixture of speed and trigger-like shooting against the Knights, providing a spark the 8-4 Lions needed at the time, after just collapsing to Princeton at Rec Hall. But Johnson struggled the rest of the season, especially during Big Ten play. He began playing with hesitation, hoisting up deep threes that consistently didn’t even find the rim. Soon, his playing time dwindled as Thorpe’s increased.

This year, expect Johnson to play a bigger role. With Frazier gone and Newbill likely running the point, Johnson will compete with other guards for meaningful minutes in the backcourt. Along with Montminy and Newbill, Johnson’s the only other senior guard. His speed rivals that of Frazier’s, and, despite his lanky 6-1 frame, Johnson has shown the ability to finish at the rim and behind the arc. — BB

#2 DJ Newbill: For the third straight season, D.J. Newbill will lead the Nittany Lions as they try to improve on last season’s 16-18 finish. The redshirt senior earned Second-Team All-Big Ten honors last year, averaging 17.8 points per game (second in the Big Ten) and 4.9 rebounds. Even after displaying his leadership and scoring ability the past two years, Newbill still might be one of the most underrated players in the NCAA.

At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds., he has the size and physicality to bully other guards. He is at his best when driving to the basket. Newbill has also improved his range since transferring in as a sophomore. Last year he shot 45% from the field and 32.6% from three-point territory.

This year, Newbill will have to step up as more of a distributor, a role he was forced to step into during his sophomore season when point guard Tim Frazier went down with a torn Achilles. Frazier’s graduation leaves Newbill as the only proven ball-handler on the team. He averaged just 1.7 assists playing mostly off the ball last year, and will need to step that number up.

Newbill is the leader and captain of this team; expect him to lead again in both points and assists. Though his scoring average may go down depending on how much he is called on to bring the ball up, he will still be one of the best players in the conference. — JS

#3 Devin Foster: JUCO transfer guards have historically found success in Penn State’s system. My favorite reminder is Stanley Pringle, a crowd favorite whose speed, vertical, and three-point marksmanship earned him significant playing time. Foster is of a different breed, but still should make an impact. A former football player, at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, Foster will be a physical two-guard that will be able to stick with bigger Big Ten guards. He can also shoot, seemingly like the rest of Penn State’s backcourt: he averaged nearly 40 percent from behind the arc last year.

At Vincennes University, Foster was a second-team All-American, where he averaged 12 points a game. He won a state championship in high school with former Michigan State bruiser Adreian Payne. At Penn State, Foster will be another integral piece in the Nittany Lions’ shooting guard puzzle. Expect him to share time with Thorpe, Johnson, and the freshmen. — BB

#5 Donovon Jack: Who is Donovon Jack? For a junior returning starter, trying to say exactly what he is requires quite a bit of thought. He possess an incredibly interesting skill set, but is often hindered by an inability to stay on the floor. He has the potential to be the second-most important player on this team, but it will take some work.

Jack needs to stop fouling. As highlighted and analyzed by our friend Eric Gibson over at Black Shoe Diaries, his personal foul rate was absurd. Lacking strength is part of it, as he was arguably playing out-of-position as a center, especially in the Big Ten. Another part is simply a learning curve, and entering his junior year, an improvement there is needed. The Nittany Lions need him on the floor, and he plays better when he fouls less. It’s key to a Penn State tournament run. Jack also lost his three-point shot once conference play started. His ability to stretch the floor is a large part of what makes him so valuable, and becoming a liability outside rendered him wholly one-dimensional on offense. Jack shot 47.4% (9/19) from three during non-conference play, showing just how much of a threat he can be from outside. Shooting 4/6 from outside against LaSalle was the prime performance, as Jack helped carry the Lions to a 79-72 victory. Once Big Ten slate began, though, it all fell apart. Jack shot a paltry 22.7% (10/44) from three, and after the Nebraska game on January 23rd, that plummeted to an impossibly bad 7.4%. Jack began getting bodied by bigger, more physical Big Ten centers while simultaneously being asked to carry a larger part of the offensive load. Being forced to stay inside meant focusing on his post game, and being overmatched hurt his game. The result was a loss of his shooting stroke. Luckily, it is almost physically impossible for him to shoot that poorly ever again, and he still ended the season a tick above 30% from outside — behind the national average, but still decent for a big man.

Despite that dearth of shooting, Jack still had the highest eFG% (50.3%) amongst those on the roster who took at least 100 shots. Taking 43.3% of his shots at the rim and making them at a 61.5% clip certainly helped, and as his post game improves, Jack could push that number even further up. Last year, Jack was 47th in the nation in block percentage at 9.2%, and 25th in the nation in turnover rate at 8.5%. That is nuts, especially for a guy who played center despite being undersized and underweight, lost his shot just about the moment conference play started, and was perpetually in foul trouble. A former volleyball standout, Jack’s ability to swat would-be shots despite being relatively weak for the position (which is not his fault in any way) is incredible. Paired with Ross Travis, Jordan Dickerson, Brandon Taylor or Julian Moore in the front court, Jack could actually improve on that number this season and join the ranks of the elite shot blockers in the NCAA. The turnover rate is already elite, and if he can maintain a similar mark while regaining his long-distance stroke and continuing to improve down low, he will be one of the hardest players to guard and gameplan for in the Big Ten. — NP

#10 Brandon Taylor: Like Travis, Taylor is poised for a big year. He’s averaged over 20 minutes a game in his two seasons, and the junior has shown improvement. Last year, after losing significant weight in the offseason, the 6-6 forward average 9.2 points a game, up from 5.3 in 2012. He also upped his output on the glass, from 3.3 boards a game to 4.9. I think another offseason to get stronger and quicker will do wonder for Taylor, and he his efficiency will improve.

Taylor needs to fix his inconsistency. He’s often trigger-happy from three-point land. However, some days he’ll be spot on, and others he’ll be woefully off. Taylor will start again this year, and, along with Travis, will be Penn State’s feature forward. I’d like to see him create more opportunities for himself, especially off the dribble or on the block. Last year, he’d have a tendency of waiting for a pass and hoisting up a shot. At 6-6, 225, he can find points for himself. — BB

#13 Geno Thorpe: A 6-foot-3, 180 pound combo guard with lockdown on-ball defending skills, Thorpe invites plenty of comparisons to a young Iman Shumpert. The Pittsburgh native has intriguing potential, and already proved last season he is more than capable of guarding some of the Big Ten’s best perimeter players. Thorpe’s 2.5% steal rate was second only to Tim Frazier last season, and another year of improvement could mean huge things for Penn State. The real question is with his offense, but if the past is any indication, that part of his game could blossom starting this season. Thorpe averaged 26.3 points per game his senior year at Shaler High School on 55% shooting, including 37% from three.

Last season, Thorpe played 27.6% of Penn State’s minutes across 32 games, with 14.9% of possessions used. A small sample size to be sure, but there are more than a few signs of things to come. For one, he shot 54.8% from the field and sported a 57% eFG%, the best numbers on the team for any player with double-digit shots. Thorpe got to the rim plenty and finished with authority, too. 61.4% of all his field goal attempts came at the rim, second only to Jordan Dickerson who, if you’ll recall, plays center. His field goal percentage at the rim was an astounding 74.3%, and while that is due to regress a bit with a larger sample size, it is certainly promising. Because he got to the basket so often and so effectively, Thorpe became a champion of the last of the Four Factors: he averaged nearly one free throw attempt for every shot attempt. While a 69.1% free throw rate left something to be desired, an improvement in that category would make Thorpe one of the elite driving guards in the conference. If he can get to the basket like he did last year while hitting threes at even an average rate, the Newbill/Thorpe backcourt will thrive. He’ll need to improve on a 16.7% field goal percentage on two-point jumpers if he wishes to keep that as part of his arsenal, and a 21.4% turnover rate was indicative of a freshman adjusting to the grind of the Big Ten. Both of those numbers should improve this year and Thorpe would be best served playing a drive-and-D style, setting screens and getting open looks from three, while occasionally playing on the ball and allowing Newbill to slide over to the shooting guard role he thrived in last season. His career is only truly getting started, and look for him to play a crucial role in Penn State’s success this year. If Penn State is going to maximize production from DJ Newbill’s senior season and stop the likes of Yogi Ferrell, Andre Hollins and Derrick Walton Jr., they’ll need Thorpe at his best. — NP

#14 Kevin Montminy: This is Montminy’s first year with a scholarship, after spending three years as a walk-on out of Penns Valley High. He may have only scored 24 points in his career as a Nittany Lion, but let me tell ya, this kid has moxie. He’s been known to dive for loose balls, throw his body around, and truly put the team before himself. This is part of the reason why Chambers named him a team captain before the season, and why he’s earned the endearing nickname “Hoops McGloin” among fans.

While he probably won’t start a game, or even average double-digit minutes, it’s realistic to expect Montminy to get more consistent playing time. If nothing else, look for him to provide a spark if the team is ever in a lull during a game, and provide Newbill (or whoever Chambers decides to run the point) a breather from time to time. — AR

#21 Isaiah Washington: Washington’s commitment was huge for Chambers and his staff, as it proved Penn State could snag top in-state talent. Washington committed way back in 2012, and if he has a big freshman year, it will be a testament to Chambers’ recruiting dedication.

Washington, a Williamsport High School graduate, is a tall (6-foot-3) and lanky (160 pounds) guard with great leaping ability and agility. He averaged 22 points per game as a senior, and is Millionaires’ all-time leader in steals. He also used to play AAU ball with fellow Penn State center Julian Moore.

Washington will likely be third off the bench at the two-guard spot behind Thorpe and Johnson. He’s going to need to put on weight to handle the challenges of the Big Ten, but he should get some playing time before the conference season begins to test the collegiate waters. — BB

#32 Jordan Dickerson: Dickerson returns as the tallest member of the team at 7-foot-1, and will provide much-needed size down low. Where he lacks in the shooting department, Dickerson makes up for it as a rebounder, using his lanky frame and ridiculous wingspan to dominate the boards. His wingspan also makes him an excellent shot blocker, and helps him create separation in the paint and catch passes. He was not otherworldly last season, as he is a shaky ball handler and looked lost at times, but his time in the gym this offseason, plus spending another year in Chambers’ system, should help in that department.

If everything goes according to plan this season, Dickerson and Jack should team up to be one of the Big Ten’s best shot-blocking duos. He can come off the bench and create mismatches for opposing teams in the paint.  — DA

#33 Shep Garner: A Philly product, Garner was the apple of many eyes in the college basketball world, including perennial title contenders like Arizona, Florida, and Texas. The three-star guard narrowed down his choices to Penn State, Rutgers, and St. Joe’s before deciding to commit to the Lions last June, joining fellow two-guards Isaiah Washington and Devin Foster in the 2014 class.

Garner was a three-time All-Catholic, all-state selection at Roman Catholic in Philadelphia. The 1,000-point scorer averaged just under 16 points per game over his career, leading the Cahillites to the District 12-AAAA title and the state playoffs, finishing with a 19-7 record.

Scouting reports say Garner is unselfish, a capable shooter, and a good defender, and did not list any glaring weaknesses in his game. At 6-foot-2, 170 pounds, Garner is a bit undersized right now. Then again, most 18-year old freshmen are.

When talking about both Foster and Garner at Media Day, head coach Patrick Chambers said both possessed a “high IQ”, but need to put on some muscle and adjust to the speed of the college game before stepping into bigger roles.

Garner will compete with Washington and Foster for playing time behind Geno Thorpe and John Johnson. Having fresh, capable bodies like Garner to come into the game for a few minutes per game will be a welcome sight for a team that has lacked depth at the guard position since Chambers took over. — CJ

#34 Alan Wisniewski: “Wiz” enters his senior season as a greater leader off the court than on it. As one of five seniors on the squad, he is one of a handful of players that Patrick Chambers has given specific responsibilities to, in order make sure things run smoothly within the program. Wisnewski has been used sparingly off the bench over the past few years. He played in 20 games last season and averaged 0.6 points and 1.0 rebound per game.

At 6-foot-10, he adds size to an inexperienced backcourt, but expect to see him get most of his minutes throughout the nonconference schedule. — JS

#43 Ross Travis: Another returning starter, senior Ross Travis will hopefully (finally) have his breakout year. Travis reminds me in many ways of former Penn Stater Jeff Brooks. of the Talor Battle/Ed DeChellis era. Brooks’ play didn’t explode until his senior season, even as he was hampered with shoulder injuries. But when it did, he and Battle led the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten Championship Game and the NCAA tournament.

If Travis plays like he can, this year’s team should have similar ambitions. Travis has averaged around 30 minutes a game the last two seasons, but never averaged more than 8.4 points a contest over a season. He’s a presence on the glass, averaging more than seven boards a game over the last two years, and is thus a threat for a double-double any night.

Hopefully, #RossTravisJumpShots will slide out of existence, as the muscular 6-7 forward should spend more time down low while on offense. Regardless, he’ll be a clear starter this year, one of the team’s leaders, and an integral part of how far Penn State goes this season. — BB

#44 Julian Moore: One of Penn State’s three Philadelphia products, Moore came to Penn State in 2013 by way of Germantown Academy. A three-star recruit, Moore earned second team Class AA Pennsylvania All-State honors in his senior season and posted 14 points, 8.9 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while shooting 51 percent throughout his career.

Standing at 6-foot-10, 235 pounds, Moore is tall, long and mobile, and is just rounding into form as a redshirt freshman. While recovering over the last year from a broken nose suffered in the Princeton game, he added 20 pounds of muscle. He possesses pick and pop ability with a strong face-up game and the ability to put the ball on the floor. His length is a factor in the defensive end, and his leaping ability and strong hands can finish at the rim and grab rebounds.

In 19 minutes of action against Longwood, Moore grabbed six rebounds, including five on the defensive end. If Moore can stay healthy, he will prove to be a valuable fill-in down low, an area Penn State desperately needs improvement. — CJ

What has changed?

Losses: Graham Woodward, Allen Roberts, Tim Frazier, and Zach Cooper

For the second time in three years, Penn State will have to learn to play without Tim Frazier. Frazier ruptured his achilles during the 2012-13 season and took a medical redshirt, returning last year for a sixth season. Anyone who watched the NBA Summer League in 2014 saw that he was much more the Frazier of old a year-and-a-half removed from the injury, taking on defenders and playing tough, in-your-face defense. Unfortunately, his scoring efficiency and explosiveness never fully returned in a Penn State uniform. Returning from an injury that severe takes time, and he still provided elite court vision and passing and ran the offense, but was simply not the same point guard for most of the season.

While his leadership will be tough to replace, Frazier has a ready-made replacement on this roster already in DJ Newbill. Newbill ran the point when Frazier was hurt two season ago, and did so effectively. While some worry about how he will handle having to both create and finish after a breakout 2013-14 campaign. Newbill might be the most talented guard Penn State has ever had. If anybody can do it, it’s DJ. The trio of Geno Thorpe, John Johnson and Shep Garner will look to replace the lost production from Frazier, and each brings something different to the table. Thorpe finishes at the rim better than Frazier did and is a fantastic defender. Johnson is at least equally skilled  probably better) three-point shooter and nearly matched Frazier’s pedestrian 46.3% eFG% despite having what any casual fan could describe as a rough transition into the Penn State offense. and Garner provides a little of everything, able to score, pass, and, maybe most critically, rebound. Frazier was a very, very good rebounder for a guard. While you can never replace what Tim Frazier has meant to this program, especially during the last few lean years, Penn State should be able to survive and even thrive with Frazier now plying his trade in the D-League.

Graham Woodward’s loss hurt on the perimeter, but will also serve to open up time for younger players. Woodward played the 7th-most minutes on the team, and was easily the best three point shooter on the roster, boasting a robust 39% mark from outside. His 50.6% eFG% was second only to Thorpe, and he posted a decent 17.8% turnover rate. However, for as good of a shooter as he was, Woodward didn’t provide much else. 72% of his 82 field goal attempts came from outside. He converted just 42.9% of the time at the rim, by far the worst mark on the team, and just 25% on 2-point jumpers, and he ended the season as the only player on Penn State’s roster to shoot three pointers at a better clip than twos. While having outside marksmen off the bench is always an asset, Woodward should be replaceable with the combination of the players discussed regarding Frazier, as well as an improved outside game from Donovon Jack and some minutes from coveted freshman Isaiah Washington.

Allen Roberts looked like he could be a key contributor for the Nittany Lions early on last season, but faded towards the end and left the team for personal reasons last February. Penn State has an abundance of guards who are able to post a 30% or better mark from three.

Zach Cooper played two minutes in his career, but worked hard in practice and was trusted with the important, thankless role of running the scout team.

Newcomers: Devin Foster, Isaiah Washington, and Shep Garner

Washington, a 6-foot-4, 180 pound freshman from Williamsport, is the prized recruit of Pat Chambers’ recruiting class, and brings some freakish athleticism to the table for the Nittany Lions. Washington possesses a rail thin frame, but has the ability to jump out of the gym if he wanted, making for some highlight reel dunks. Washington also has some insane range on his jumpshot, and can hit the long ball from almost anywhere. He is a solid defender, and will only get stronger as time goes on. Washington is speedy, and uses his speed to cut in and finish in transition. Do not expect to see Washington a whole lot, as he joins a rather talented Nittany Lions backcourt headlined by D.J. Newbill. Expect Washington to use his first year as a Nittany Lion to learn the ropes, and improve his overall game.

Shep Garner, a 6-foot-2, 185 pound guard, joins fellow newcomers Washington and Foster in the Penn State backcourt. The Roman Catholic product plays a more traditional point guard role, and has the skill set to do so at a high level. A fluid athlete, Garner knows how to find his man and create opportunities, but can get the job done himself with his midrange jumper and at the rim when he hits the lane. Garner is an exceptional defender, and can steal the ball and create points off of turnovers. Garner will spend this season learning, but don’t count out any early action off the bench from the freshman if his number is called. Garner has a bright future in the Penn State backcourt, and looks to thrive in Pat Chambers’ system.

Devin Foster, the elder statesman of the 2014 recruiting class, joins the Nittany Lions as a transfer from Vincennes University, a junior college in Indiana. Foster was not required to sit out a year, and comes in with two seasons of eligibility. The junior guard should see time off the bench in a reserve role, and will be counted on to contribute. Foster brings some muscle to the backcourt at 6-foot-2, 210 pounds. He loves to shoot the corner three, and possesses a great jumpshot. He is a monster in transition, and finishes hard at the rim. He provides great depth, and can offer a shooting spark as a rotational guard. He has a Big Ten-ready body, and isn’t afraid to draw contact. Foster will be counted on to provide relief, and look for Pat Chambers to integrate him into his game plan. — DA

Depth Chart:

Chambers said at Media Day that he anticipates Newbill running the point. Newbill is a true shooting guard, but took over the point when Tim Frazier ruptured his Achilles tendon two years ago. Scoring wise, the switch didn’t make much of a difference, though Newbill did have more assists and turnovers per contest while running the offense.

Expect Taylor, Jack, and Travis to refill their starting positions from last year. With four returning starters, the experienced Nittany Lions will be able to play off each other from the start. Jordan Dickerson, who apparently put on 15 pounds of muscle over the offseason, will need to be stronger with the ball down low to back up Jack. Wisniewski faces many of those same issues. Julian Moore played several games last year before being redshirted. He looked undersized as a freshman, but a year of strength training will have helped. The three of them will need to support Jack down low, Penn State’s weak spot last year.

Chambers suggested that Thorpe would start at shooting guard. Thorpe saw action throughout last season, and demonstrated scoring ability at times, and consistent talent on defense. He had numerous steals that led to breakaway dunks.

A litany of guards could be the first off the bench, and Chambers said he might play as many as ten players a game. Johnson is a certainly a candidate, after showing sparks of brilliance in between stretches of inconsistency last year. Banks may earn big minutes off the bench as well. So too should Foster, whose size and collegiate experience won’t be overlooked.

If Johnson fills the shooting guard role, expect Garner to be Newbill’s backup. Garner and Newbill are both Philly products, and Newbill has the opportunity to be a prime mentor for the potential-filled Garner.

Somewhere in this mix are Washington and Montminy. If not redshirted, Washington’s non-conference performances will dictate his playing time come Big Ten play. Despite being a team captain this year, Montminy will still likely see limited minutes, especially with such a deep pool of backcourt talent. — BB

Schedule Analysis:

Non-conference: 

Home opponents: Morgan State, Fordham, Akron, Virginia Tech, Duquesne, George Washington, Dartmouth.

Road opponents: Charlotte, South Carolina/Cornell, unnamed opponent (neutral site — Charleston Classic), Bucknell, Marshall, Drexel (neutral site — Allentown, Pa.)

While the non-conference schedule is not nearly as challenging as previous years, the timing of the games may present a problem for the young Nittany Lions. The team plays seven games in 14 days to start the season, including three games in the Charleston Classic tournament.

“With the mixture of talent we have, with veterans and youth, I wanted to give them every opportunity to put on that jersey, to continue to get better, to continue to prepare for the Big Ten [season],” Pat Chambers said when asked about the season-opening marathon. “I know seven [games] in 14 [days] is a little bit crazy, but so are some Big Ten weeks. We’re just trying to prepare them, get them mentally tough, get them mentally ready.”

Luckily, the teams on Penn State’s schedule during that stretch shouldn’t present too much of a problem. The toughest test may be the final game, a road matchup at Bucknell on the Friday after Thanksgiving. While the 4,000-seat Sojka Pavilion may be small, it should be the most hostile environment the Nittany Lions will face out of conference.

George Washington, Drexel, and a rebuilding Virginia Tech team highlight the rest of the schedule before Penn State starts Big Ten play at Wisconsin. If it comes down to it, this relatively weak non-conference schedule may come back to bite the Nittany Lions come Selection Sunday. But if Penn State can gain momentum by winning most of these games going into the conference season, its strength of schedule may not even matter. — AR

Big Ten slate: 

Home opponents: Michigan, Purdue, Rutgers, Minnesota, Nebraska, Maryland, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio State.

Road opponents: Wisconsin, Rutgers, Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio State, Northwestern, Minnesota.

Penn State gets its Big Ten schedule started this year with a New Year’s Eve battle on the road against a Wisconsin team that brings back four of its five starters from its Final Four team last year, and things don’t get much easier from there. The team’s first home game in the conference is against the Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Mitch McGary-less Michigan Wolverines on January 6th. All told, Penn State has 18 conference games: home-and-homes against Wisconsin, Rutgers, Minnesota, Ohio State, and Maryland; home games against Michigan, Purdue, Iowa, and Nebraska; and road games against Indiana, Michigan State, Illinois, and Northwestern.

It’s nice that the Nittany Lions only have to play Michigan, Iowa, Indiana, and Michigan State once each, but on the flip side, they only get one game against fellow bottom-feeders Purdue and Northwestern. The two games against Ohio State and Wisconsin figure to both be difficult ones, although if the games against the Buckeyes go anything like they did last season, expect Penn State and its fans to be pretty happy.

Here’s how the rest of the Big Ten shakes out:

  • Wisconsin returns nearly everyone from its Final Four team last year, including Big Ten Player of the Year favorite Frank Kaminsky and fellow potential Big Ten first teamer Sam Dekker.
  • Ohio State lost Aaron Craft and his extremely punchable face, along with LaQuinton Ross, but will look to its returning depth and freshman D’Angelo Russell to help soften the blow.
  • Michigan State saw starters Adreian Payne and Gary Harris go to the NBA and Keith Appling graduate, but you can never count out a Tom Izzo-coached team. He has worked magic in East Lansing before, and with Branden Dawson, Travis Trice, and Denzel Valentine still on the roster, the Spartans will be a factor in the conference race.
  • Iowa collapsed down the stretch last year, losing eight of its last 13 games, but it has most of the roster coming back and should improve on its 9-9 conference finish.
  • Nebraska’s Terran Petteway might be the second-best player in the conference behind Wisconsin’s Kaminsky, and he and Shavon Shields should lead the Cornhuskers to a top-half finish in the Big Ten.
  • Like its in-state rivals, Michigan lost a ton of talent, with Stauskas, Robinson III, and McGary all taking their talents to the NBA. Caris LeVert is still in Ann Arbor, though, and if he takes the leap that is expected of him,and gets some help from Derrick Walton and Zak Irvin, the Wolverines should still be able to get themselves a tournament berth. — SH

Advanced Team Stats and Four Factors Analysis

Advanced statistics are the way of the world in basketball now. For many, these numbers can be a bit intimidating at first, so before we dive in, we will provide you with an overview of what exactly each of these means, and what goes into determining them. Golden State of Mind put together my favorite primer on advanced statistics way back in 2011, and it’s well worth the read if you’re not well-versed on the matter, or if you’re interested in learning more on the subject. Basketball-reference, KenPom, and Hoop-Math are all great resources.

Finish reading that? Good, let’s get to it.

Penn State is 56th in KenPom’s pre-season Pythagorean rating, which is awesome for a multitude of of reasons. For one, it finished last season 82nd, just behind perennial powerhouses Middle Tennessee and North Carolina Central. That means that, despite the loss of one of the greatest players in program history in Tim Frazier, all signs point to a continued improvement under year four of the Pat Chambers Experience. The Nittany Lions finished 148th in 2013, and 127th in 2012, the first two years of Chambers’ tenure.

The biggest factor that goes into this is relatively obvious: the team has more talent. It is well-coached and it believes in its own talent. What that has produced is a more efficient team, a team that takes advantage of its possessions. A possession is counted when a run of play ends in a bucket, a defensive rebound, or a turnover. Basketball logic dictates that teams will typically accrue a roughly equal number of possession in any one game. Therefore, being more efficient than your opponent on the offensive end (scoring more often) and defensive (forcing more turnovers and missed shots) is the key to winning. That’s a long way of saying if you can score and stop your opponent from scoring, you will win. Simple enough.

Penn State’s offense is projected at 59th in the nation in adjusted efficiency (107.5 points per 100 possessions), with the defense at 58th (97.4). Last year, 23 teams finished the season in the top-60 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Twenty-two of them made the tournament, with Florida State the only omission. Wisconsin and Michigan State were the only teams in the Big Ten to post numbers as good or better than Penn State’s projections. If the Nittany Lions can pull off a strong showing in non-conference play, and play to their potential in the Big Ten, this is a tournament team.

Last year, Penn State absolutely fell apart in conference play. Overall, it averaged 108.2 points per 100 possessions and allowed 100.8. Once the Big Ten schedule began, those numbers flip, as we scored just 100.1 points per and allowed 106.3. Both of those ranked ninth in the Big Ten — Penn State would finish 10th in the conference standings. The Big Ten is an absolute grind, and some regression is expected as you move to a tougher part of the schedule, but improved play in-conference is the key.

There are plenty of ways to analyze a team, but to get a quick view of the whole picture, an advanced version of The Four Factors analysis is the best way. TFF, a creation of Dr. Dean Oliver, surmises that four weighted categories produce a win in basketball: Shooting (40%), Turnovers (25%), Rebounding (20%) and Free Throws (15%). An advanced version utilizes Effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%), Turnover Percentage (TO%), Offensive Rebounding Percentage (OReb%) and Free Throw Attempts per Field Goal Attempt. For the season, Penn State was all over the place in those four, which makes sense when you consider it finished the year with a near-.500 record.

These are the Four Factors for 2013-14, displayed left to right as Penn State, Penn State’s opponents, and Division-1 average:

four factors
Courtesy: KenPom

There’s plenty to take away from that. First, let’s talk about scoring, the most important factor. A below-average effective field goal percentage as a team came from a number of factors. eFG% rewards the three point shot, as it is more valuable. As a team, Penn State shot 31.9% from beyond the arc last year, good for 284th in the nation and well below the national average of 34.5%. Frazier, while a Penn State legend, did not have the touch from three that you would expect in his final season. He shot 29.1% on 86 attempts (the second-most on the team behind D.J. Newbill). Replacing Frazier with an average three-point shooter should help that number.

The Lions struggled from the mid-range too, which makes sense when you think of how many Frazier runners and Newbill elbow jumpers became a regular part of Penn State’s attack. The mid-range two is the least valuable shot in basketball if you can’t produce at an above-average level. Considering neither Dirk Nowitzki nor Carmelo Anthony play for Penn State, avoiding that shot is a better strategy more often than not. Chambers began his career at Penn State preaching layups and threes, and hopefully with a team mostly comprised of players he recruited, that philosophy will take shape in 2014-15. It really needs to, because Penn State shot a miserable 26.7% on assisted two-point jumpers last year. That number is almost unrepeatably bad, as the national average was 35.4% for the same shot. Unassisted, those numbers jump to 35.5% and 35.8%, but in a smaller sample size.

This is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the Nittany Lions were above average close to the hoop, with a 61% field goal percentage at the rim, beating the 59.5% national average. Newbill and Frazier both knew how to finish at the rim, and Newbill should only improve in that respect, especially if he ditches the comparatively high-risk, low-reward midrange jumper and sticks to driving and three-pointers. If Donovon Jack plays as a stretch-four with Jordan Dickerson down low, that would certainly help. Dickerson can be a monster down low; if you throw it to him down there with some space, odds are he’s going to put it home. By having his 7-foot-1 body and potentially elite shot blocking down there, and a team that can space the floor behind him, it should help make up for his mediocre hands and unrefined post moves.

Turnover percentage is a number the Nittany Lions can count as a strength and an area to improve simultaneously. Offensively, they ranked 39th in the country in not coughing the ball up, a vital stat. That number should remain relatively steady. Defensively, they were 293rd in the country, however, with Geno Thorpe and Dickerson playing more minutes, that number should go up. Frazier again can be cited as a bit of a problem here, as his lost explosiveness due to the ruptured Achilles was evident on defense. This is obviously not his fault, but Thorpe established himself as the best perimeter defender on the roster and Dickerson is a machine when it comes to defensive rebounding, and Jack playing at the 4 instead of the in the 5 is very enticing. Losing Frazier means a lot, as he was the best on the team at forcing turnovers via steal, but Thorpe has Iman Shumpert-esque potential with regards to on-ball defense.

Offensive rebounding percentage is kind of a toss-up. Frazier was a hell of a rebounder for a guy who was listed 6-foot-1, 170 pounds. Dickerson getting more minutes, again, should help with this number and mitigate that loss. He has the instincts and the footwork to kill it on the offensive glass. Ross Travis is also arguably the best rebounding forward in the conference, and even if he plays 25 minutes guarding four different positions, he could blow up. Nobody knows if Thorpe can rebound; the sample size is just too damn small. But if he can, that would provide a boost as well, as would Jack rebounding over forwards instead of centers. While Penn State was largely mediocre at pulling down the ball, it did not allow their opponents the courtesy of extra possession either, coming in at 78th in the country against the offensive rebound.

Free throws are typically a product of getting to the rim, and not having Frazier certainly hurts that. However, a center like Dickerson, who is stronger than Jack and whose offensive game is built for the low post, rather than the pick-and-pop, will contribute. Not settling for mid-range jumpers and instead attacking the basket with more consistency will also help. This number generally stays the same when your personnel do, and with four starters returning, it should be about the same. Penn State was slightly below-average at getting to the line last year, and allowed its opponents to get there far too often. Donovon Jack, I’m looking at you.

Our in-conference numbers looked like this:

four factors 2
Courtesy: KenPom

MY EYES! MY EYES! Good lord. So what I’m saying here is all of those factors still apply here, but even more strongly. Penn State has to play up to its competition, period.

Ultimately, a starting five of Newbill, Thorpe, Brandon Taylor, Jack and Dickerson is the best option for the Nittany Lions, with Travis, John Johnson and Julian Moore leading the second unit. This should be the most positive way to play towards all four factors, and help Penn State make it to the Big Dance in March.

Season Outlook:

C.J. Doon: What to make of this year’s team? Obviously, there’s a lot to like about this squad: A certified star in D.J. Newbill, who will certainly be playing with a chip on his shoulder after receiving very little attention in the offseason, a veteran leader and relentless rebounder in Ross Travis, a budding playmaker in Geno Thorpe, and a stronger, slimmed down, and improved post-player in Brandon Taylor.

The real question mark is what kind of contributions Penn State can get from its role players. John Johnson is a capable scorer at guard. Donovon Jack is an awkward fit on the floor, since he’s not quite big enough to bang bodies down low and not quite quick enough to drive past other bigs, but he’s shown flashes of potential as an outside shooter, something Penn State sorely needs after shooting less than 30 percent from beyond the arc last season in Big Ten play. Jordan Dickerson, the team’s only true center at 7-foot-1, has taken big strides in developing his game since arriving on campus as a lanky transfer out of SMU. A healthy Dickerson could provide Penn State with a valuable rim protector and capable scoring option near the basket, something the team’s never had under Chambers.

And then there’s the freshman. Redshirt freshman Julian Moore can provide length and rebounding off the bench. Another redshirt freshman, Payton Banks, brings perimeter skills and passing to the frontcourt after playing point guard in high school. The true freshman guard duo of Shep Garner and Isaiah Washington remain unknown commodities, but are athletic freaks that might be able to offer Penn State the kind of depth its never been afforded if they can adapt quickly.

At first glance, the non-conference schedule looks like a cake walk. There are tough games against Colonial Conference members Drexel and George Washington, as well as matchup with Virginia Tech in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and a road game against an always feisty Bucknell team. Other than that, the rest of the games are very winnable. While it seems incredibly optimistic given how little we’ve seen of the this team so far, Penn State has a chance of entering the conference season with only two or three, and dare I say, just one loss.

As expected, the Big Ten schedule is where it gets dicey. The Lions will quickly find out what they’re made of when they face No. 3 Wisconsin, No. 24 Michigan, and No. 18 Michigan State in the first three weeks. A back-to-back matchup against No. 21 Nebraska and No. 20 Ohio State highlight a tough month of February, and the team finishes the regular season against tournament hopefuls Ohio State and Minnesota.

After posting a combined six conference wins during the first two years under Patrick Chambers, Penn State earned six last season, including two wins over a ranked Ohio State team. We’ve seen what this team is capable of when clicking on all cylinders under Chambers (think the improbable win in 2012 over No. 4 Michigan), but there’s been a lack of consistency. If Newbill puts together the type of All-Big Ten season he’s capable of, Thorpe and Taylor take the next step, and a combination of the freshman and role players offer valuable contributions off the bench, this team can win 8, 9, or maybe 10 games in the Big Ten.

We’ve seen the steady rise of this program since Chambers took over. It might still be one year away from achieving mid-level status in the Big Ten, but that’s no reason to doubt this year’s potential. We might be looking at Penn State’s best chance to make the NCAA Tournament since 2011, and that’s something to be excited about.

Stephane Hardinger: I’m not as bullish as some writers about Penn State’s chances this year. Tim Frazier is a massive loss, and while DJ Newbill is still here to lead the team and take over some of the role vacated by Frazier, I think it’s going to be very difficult to replace him. Geno Thorpe is going to have to play well for this team to make any noise, as will Jordan Dickerson, who has some key responsibilities down low as one of the team’s only low post options. Brandon Taylor is an underrated low-post scorer, and I think he’ll be a pleasant surprise to many people this year as he takes on a bigger offensive role. If freshman guard Shep Garner can give the team some solid bench minutes, that would do wonders for its backcourt depth. However, I don’t see any way Penn State finishes in the top half of the conference. The conference schedule starts out rough with three ranked teams, and I don’t see it getting much better from there. I’m predicting a 7-11 Big Ten season, good for 11th place, and a 16-13 record for the season overall. Any projections for the team to do better require a lot of “ifs” that I ultimately don’t see happening.

David Abruzzese: This Nittany Lions squad is still young, and loses one of the program’s finest players in point guard Tim Frazier. However, last season was a vast improvement from the one before, and I expect that trend to continue this season. This team has talented players on the roster, and a head coach who knows what he’s doing. Pat Chambers is a fiery coach who can get the best out of his players, and his lineup features one of the most underrated players in the nation in guard D.J. Newbill. That said, the foundation is still being built, so don’t expect any magical Big Ten championship run.

What can be expected — if everything goes according to plan — is a quietly solid season from a team that finished two games under .500 last season. If Chambers can round his troops, a potential NCAA Tournament bid is not out of the question. However, a more realistic prediction is a .500 or slightly higher finish to the regular season, paired with an NIT bid. This team is only going to get better, but if it wants to see success, winning conference games is a must. The team flashed its ability to do so last season by sweeping Ohio State, but it must capitalize against opponents such as Illinois, Minnesota, and Indiana if it wants to improve upon its 6-12 conference record last season. With all that said, this team has potential. Why not get excited about the Nittany Lions?

Ben Berkman: There are plenty of reason to be optimistic, but there are also numerous question marks surrounding this team. D.J. Newbill may be the best guard in the Big Ten, and Penn State returns four starters. But if Newbill goes cold, who will carry the offense?

Regardless, the Nittany Lions can quite possibly post a 10-3 non-conference record, if not better. There isn’t one matchup before Big Ten play starts in which Penn State will simply be the inferior team. Virginia Tech and George Washington, both at home, will be good early season metrics of this team’s potential.

Other than Wisconsin, no other Big Ten team begins its season in the top 15 nationally. I think Penn State can finish in the middle of the pack with an 8-10 record in conference play. Two wins in the Big Ten tournament will find the Lions squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Noel Purcell: A large chunk of my season outlook was explained in my analysis, so I’ll keep this simple. Penn State runs the table in non-conference play, entering the Big Ten schedule 13-0 but battle tested after close games with South Carolina, George Washington, Charlotte and high-scoring Duquesene. A 9-9 Big Ten record puts Penn State at 22-9 for the year, and they make the tournament as an at-large #11 seed after a solid Big Ten tournament run that includes an upset of either Indiana or Michigan. DJ Newbill proves he’s the most underrated player in the country, Geno Thorpe continues to grow in all phases of the game, Brandon Taylor continues to be the consummate glue guy at small forward, Donovan Jack moves to his rightful place as a stretch four, Jordan Dickerson cements himself as a valuable starting center, Ross Travis defends four different positions and plays 25 minutes per night off the bench, John Johnson becomes a quality sixth man, and the freshmen provide quality minutes themselves.

Call me overly optimistic, which is certainly a tradition here in basketball previews, but this team is deeper and more talented than any we have seen in quite some time. They’re hungry, they believe in their coach and his system, and they are primed for a run. For the first time in a while, Penn State has a legitimate shot to go dancing, and that is a beautiful, beautiful thing.

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