Putting Penn State Basketball’s 10-1 Start In Perspective
After racing to ten wins in its first eleven games to sit in a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings, you could say Penn State basketball is in uncharted territory.
With only one blemish on their schedule, a double-overtime loss to Charlotte, the Nittany Lions will head into their game against Drexel on Saturday in Allentown, Pa., looking to cap an already impressive run of non-conference wins. Penn State is riding an eight-game winning streak, the longest since the Lions reached 13 straight in 1995-96, and the most consecutive wins currently among all 14 Big Ten teams.
Since Patrick Chambers took over in 2011, Penn State has fared pretty well against non-conference opponents, but this season has achieved a level of success that was previously unheard of in the Chambers era. Penn State’s 10 non-conference wins are the most since the 2008-09 NIT Champion team won 11, led by Talor Battle, Jamelle Cornley, and Stanley Pringle.
Let’s briefly take a look at the non-conference wins and losses of the past three seasons to get a better of understanding of how the 2014-15 team stacks up.
Final Record: 12-20
Big Ten: 4-14
Non-conference wins: vs. Slippery Rock, vs. Hartford, vs. Radford, vs. Long Island, vs. USF*, vs. Youngstown State, at Boston College, vs. Mount St. Mary’s, vs. Cornell
Non-conference losses: vs. Kentucky*, at St. Joseph’s*, vs. Ole Miss, vs. Lafayette, at Duquesne
Final Record: 10-21
Big Ten: 2-16
Non-conference wins: vs. St. Francis, vs. Providence*, vs. Bucknell, vs. Penn, vs. Army, vs. Delaware St., vs. New Hampshire, vs. Duquesne
Non-conference losses: vs. NC State*, vs. Akron*, vs. Boston College, at La Salle
Final Record: 16-18
Big Ten: 6-12
Non-conference wins: vs. Wagner, at Penn, vs. La Salle, vs. Longwood, vs. Monmouth, vs. St. John’s*, vs. Marshall, at Duquesne, vs. Mount St. Mary’s
Non-conference losses: vs. Bucknell, vs. Ole Miss*, at Pitt, vs. Princeton
* – Game played at neutral site
As you can see, Penn State hasn’t fared that well against non-conference opponents under Chambers, but they also haven’t performed poorly. The level of competition Penn State has faced this season pales in comparison to teams of seasons past, with the most qualified opponent this season coming in the form of 6-3 George Washington in the Atlantic 10, ranked 67th by KenPom.
However, what you don’t see this season is the inexplicable loss to an otherwise beatable opponent. In the past, The Flaming Bus has laid eggs against Lafayette and Duquesne in 2011-12, at La Salle in 2012-13, and blown a 15-point lead to Princeton in the Return to Rec in 2013-2014. Even last year’s squad, good enough to shock a ranked Ohio State team twice, fell at home to Bucknell in the early stages of the season.
Penn State certainly hasn’t performed on all cylinders this entire season, but even when the team has struggled, its been able to close out close games with tremendous defense. In the win against George Washington, the Nits held the Colonials to 34 percent shooting (18-for-53) and 0-for-8 from beyond the arc, while Jordan Dickerson blocked six shots to lead the defense. In the second half, hounding defense from Dickerson inside the paint and Geno Thorpe on the perimeter held George Washington to 29 percent shooting (7-for-24) en route to a 13-point victory.
In addition to defense comes the team’s commitment to rebounding. The Lions rank 42nd in the country in rebounding, averaging 39.7 boards per game, while their 437 total rebounds ranks 19th nationally. Penn State is cleaning up the glass at an especially high rate on the defensive end, averaging the third-most defensive rebounds in the Big Ten with 27.2 per game.
“Defending rebounds is our staple,” Newbill said after the win against George Washington. “We can’t always rely on hitting shots and hitting threes, but we can always rely on our effort and energy and how we’re taught to move on defense.”
Perhaps something that speaks to Penn State’s ability to put together a successful season thus far as it closes out the non-conference schedule with Drexel and Dartmouth is the semblance of a team identity, something that has been lacking in years past. Last season featured two prolific backcourt scorers in Newbill and Tim Frazier, a promising young player in Geno Thorpe, an occasional heat-check guy in Brandon Taylor, Ross Travis’ rebounding, and, well … not much else.
With Dickerson rounding into form as a monstrous rim defender, Taylor putting up more consistent numbers, freshman point guard Shep Garner providing solid ball-handling and passing, Thorpe’s perimeter defense, and Travis bringing down rebounds at an extremely high rate all surrounding the team’s leading-scorer in Newbill, there is a better sense of chemistry with this team. Strangely enough, everything kind of fits. Not to mention, they’re fun as hell to watch.
As the Lions prepare to face a dreadful Drexel Dragons squad that sits at 2-7, statistically one of the worst offenses in Division I, averaging 56.7 points per game (335th nationally), Penn State’s improved defense should be able to keep the winning streak alive.
While the team’s mettle will be truly put to the test when it opens up conference play with a road matchup against No. 5 Wisconsin, the young group is growing and learning together while earning victory after victory over weaker opponents. It may not sound like a big deal, but for Penn State basketball, its a much-needed step in the right direction.