If you had followed last year's Nittany Lions all season long, you could kind of see the big win over Michigan coming. After Penn State basketball lost a road game to Nebraska in early February last season, the team began to play better. Jermaine Marshall handed out 10 assists and just two turnovers in a close loss to a very good Iowa team. Sasa Borovnjak looked like a beast while scoring 17 points as the Lions gave Michigan all it could handle in Ann Arbor. In the next game, a close road loss to Illinois, Borovnjak poured in 17 again, and it looked like Penn State finally had a third scorer.
Finally, it was time for the Nittany Lions to get a win. On February 27, behind a splendid 25-point game from Marshall, Penn State upset Michigan in the Bryce Jordan Center. It was a nice treat for fans who had struggled with the team all season long. And maybe it gave that Michigan team the kick in the butt it needed to reach the national championship game. Who knows? Everybody wins.
I didn't just relive Penn State's tumultuous February for the heck of it (although it was nice to take a trip down memory lane). That was to remind everyone that even though the Lions finished with a 2-16 conference record, they were playing very competitive basketball by the end of the season. Borovnjak finally looked like a big man who could score on a consistent basis and Marshall was a dynamic scorer who could drive to the basket as well as shoot from long range. Both players were eligible to play for Penn State in 2014, but Borovnjak chose to graduate and Marshall for some reason decided to turn pro. That failed, and now he's a grad student at Arizona State.
Even though the Lions were lousy last season, they are still losing some significant talent, without which they would have been much lousier. Fortunately, the return of Tim Frazier should help counter the departures somewhat. We don't know if Frazier will be the same player he was in 2012 after missing all of 2013 with a torn Achilles tendon, but it can't hurt to add a first team all-conference player to a squad that was lacking a point guard last year. As someone who had the pleasure of watching Frazier throughout the 2012 season, I can vouch for his penetration skills, passing, ability to draw fouls, and his incredible defense. He's a difference-maker on both ends of the floor, and it will be a lot of fun to see him back in action.
The return of Frazier means that D.J. Newbill can move from point guard to shooting guard, and that sounds good for fans who watched Newbill turn the ball over just as often as he handed out assists last season. The junior has the size and athleticism that are ideal for playing the position, but his ability to actually shoot the ball was a big issue in 2013. Newbill shot just 41 percent from the field and 27 percent from beyond the arc last season, but he did seem to improve after starting the conference season on a 1-for-18 skid from three-point range. His stroke was much more lethal than that down the stretch, and if he continues to shoot long jumpers as well as he slashes to the hoop, Newbill will be a huge asset for the Lions in 2014.
Penn State is likely to play three guards a lot this season thanks to veteran imports Allen Roberts (from Miami of Ohio) and John Johnson (from Pittsburgh), but for now the starting lineup includes Brandon Taylor, a sophomore from New Jersey who seems to be have played pretty well during PSU's European exhibition tour over the summer. Taylor's main talent is his ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting, but like Newbill, he wasn't the most accurate shooter in 2013. His 112 attempts from beyond the arc were the second most on the team last season, but Taylor only hit on 29 percent of them. In 2014, Penn State needs Taylor to be a more efficient shooter while defending opposing forwards better than he did as a freshman.
Probably the best defender Penn State will put on the floor is Ross Travis. The 6'6" junior can rebound at both ends and guard multiple positions. He's another guy who saw his offensive game get a boost during the summer tour of Europe, and he really showed his potential in Penn State's upset over Michigan last season. In that game, Travis scored 15 points and grabbed nine rebounds (three on offense) while recording four assists and four steals. Not much of a field goal shooter, Travis is better off scoring on tip-ins and post-ups, but it's his hustle, defense, and ability to run the floor that makes him important to the Lions.
Sophomore big man Donovon Jack rounds out the starting five for Penn State, and he's a player we know very little about thanks to his freshman season being cut short by a foot injury. At 6'9", Jack is someone that Penn State is clearly going to depend on for rebounds and shot blocking, but it's unclear if he's bulked up his frame enough to handle the large bodies of Adreian Payne and Mitch McGary. Even if he's not huge yet, Jack's leaping ability should prove useful while defending the paint. Anything Penn State gets on offense from him is gravy, but it is worth noting that Jack does have some confidence in his jumper.
There's only a couple of things that you can say Penn State was good at last season. One was defensive rebounding, which was kind of moot because opponents usually needed only one chance to score against this team. Still, Travis and company didn't give opponents many second opportunities, and defensive rebounding should be even more valuable this season with Frazier running the fast break.
Another thing Penn State should excel at in 2014 is getting to the free throw line. If you combine what Frazier did in 2012 with what Newbill did last season, there should be a bunch of foul shots in this team's future. That's vitally important when you consider how bad they were a shooting from the field in 2013.
Two-point field goal shooting, three-point field goal shooting, free throw shooting. It was all bad for the Lions last year, and while I'm confident that more field goals will go in this season, I'm not sure how much more. That's an issue for Penn State's offense, but there is actual reason to hope for improvement other than last year's shooters being more experienced. Roberts and Johnson were both better shooters with their former schools than most of the Lions were in 2013, so there should be help coming off the bench. As much as I made fun of Nick Collela last year, his talents are something that need to be replaced, and the two transfer players seem to fit the bill.
I'm relatively high on the Lions this season based on our preseason power poll, but I'm still not crazy enough to call for a tournament run. That doesn't mean there isn't reason for hope, though. In addition to the veteran transfers, incoming freshmen Graham Woodward and Geno Thorpe should give depth to the Penn State backcourt. Woodward in particular is valuable because of his ability to back up Frazier at the point. The frontcourt is still pretty shaky, but if one guy can make a big leap forward, I think Travis can based on the way he finished last season. Also, reading about freshman forward Payton Banks is giving me Jamelle Cornley flashbacks (undersized for a power forward, has a face-up game). Maybe I should actually watch him play first. If nothing else, I'm sure this will be a fun season.