The Nittany Lions were doomed in the Big Ten the minute Tim Frazier, their do-everything point guard, went down with a season-ending Achilles injury against Akron in Penn State's fourth game of the year. Pat Chambers' squad, without a true point guard and burdened with a severe lack of depth, was downright awful for much of the campaign, save for the upset of the year against eventual national runners-up Michigan.
The 2013 offseason saw drastic changes to the roster. Top big man Sasa Borovnjak opted to graduate and leave a fifth year of eligibility on the table. Underclassmen Jon Graham, Patrick Ackerman and Akosa Maduegbunam decided to transfer. Most surprisingly, Jermaine Marshall, the team's second-leading scorer in 2012-13, initially left with the intention of pursuing professional opportunities before ultimately ending up at Arizona State. Womp womp. To fill these voids, four freshmen and three transfers were brought in, though one, SMU transfer Jordan Dickerson, will not see the floor this season. John Johnson, formerly of Pitt, will become available at the conclusion of the Fall 2013 semester just in time for the conference slate.
A roster makeover of this magnitude leaves the Lions with quite a few question marks heading into the season, but there is optimism around the program that Pat Chambers can lead this crew to the postseason in one form or another. Predicting improvement for a 2-16 Big Ten team isn't much of a stretch, so here are three reasons why Penn State will have a much better season in 2013-14:
1. Tim Frazier is back
Getting a first team all-B1G performer back, especially one who would otherwise have graduated by now, will help the Nittany Lions immensely. No duh. The team struggled mightily without him; D.J. Newbill, who had an excellent year by off-guard standards, was forced to step in at the point, a role which he had never played before at any level. His position change caused a domino effect that forced others to play in similarly unfamiliar spots. With Frazier back (and reportedly better than ever, by the miracle of modern medicine and God's pity on Penn State basketball), Newbill is poised for a breakout year. Together, they'll form one of the
country's B1G's best backcourts.
2. Chambers can finally run his preferred system. Or, y'know, has to.
Before making a quick stop as the head coach at Boston University, Pat Chambers was Jay Wright's top assistant at Villanova from 2004-2009, where the four-guard set was the hallmark of a program that went to four Sweet Sixteens or better during that span. Players like Kyle Lowry, Randy Foye and Scottie Reynolds thrived in this system, and Chambers thinks Frazier and Newbill could be similar talents in this setup. But two guards does not a four-man backcourt make, and despite the loss of Marshall there are still some options on the roster. Allen Roberts, a graduate transfer from Miami (OH), has the range to be able to stretch defenses as does Johnson, who shot 38% from three as a freshman at Pitt. A couple of first-year guys, Geno Thorpe and Graham Woodward, could also see some time in the rotation.
Although, Chambers' hand may be forced with this roster. No returning player is listed as taller than 6'9", and that 6'9" guy is sophomore Donovon Jack, who played in 17 games as a freshman due to injury and averaged 1.7 ppg (though Chambers has praised his improvement this offseason and he started all three European tour games). Ross Travis is the B1G's leading returning rebounder (7.4 per game), but at just 6'6" he lacks the ability to guard guys like Mitch McGary and Adreian Payne. Brandon Taylor showed promise as a 6'7" freshman and certainly has the frame to play the stretch four, but his well-documented foul troubles (5.0 fouls per 40 min) may keep him from taking the next step in his development as a true power forward.
In any case, Chambers certainly has more talent to work with than either of his previous two seasons, and having the guys to run in his favored set-up should make for more interesting and better results.
3. Penn State finally has depth
Last season just seven players averaged more than 20 minutes per game. One of those players was walk-on Nick Colella, a former member of the Penn State Lady Lions' scout team. No disrespect to Colella, who embodies the #ATTITUDE Chambers has preached in his first two seasons, but the effort he gave on the floor far outweighed his ability to play in the B1G. Newbill and Marshall each averaged ~35 minutes per game last year, and in 2011-12 Tim Frazier usually played the full 40 (37.1 mpg). Don't expect either Frazier or Newbill to have to put in that much time on the floor, with Roberts, Johnson, and Thorpe expected to play significant minutes. Keeping the stars fresh will be a huge boost in the long, arduous B1G schedule. Who knows, having fresh stars might come in handy for the Nittany Lions come March.