This 2013-14 campaign was supposed to be a stepping stone for Penn State. With Tim Frazier coming back to lead the offense and a host of underclassmen returning with more experience, there was reason to believe that these Lions would better better than the ones who were so futile in conference play last season.
And while it's hard to argue that this team is less skilled than the 2012-13 version, the results haven't shown up yet. Despite close calls against Minnesota, Indiana, and Purdue, PSU is 0-for the conference season. Even Nebraska has a win to its name (against Ohio State, no less). Northwestern somehow has two after looking like the conference's worst team for the majority of the season.
Penn State is still stuck at zero. After getting waxed by Michigan State and Illinois to start conference play, the Lions were close to their first win against Minnesota on January 8. Clinging to a 59-57 lead with just over two minutes remaining, the Lions saw Frazier foul out and let the game slip away thanks to turnovers and missed free throws.
Days later against Indiana, Penn State took a 72-70 lead with less than two minutes on the clock. However, after D.J. Newbill hit a pair of free throws to give the Lions the advantage, Austin Etherington hit a three-pointer (one of just three he has made all season) to give the Hoosiers a one-point lead. Penn State would miss three shots during its next possession before Frazier fouled out again and the game was pushed out of reach by Indiana free throws.
After a loss to Michigan in which Penn State failed to contain Nik Stauskas or any of the other Wolverines, the Lions came oh-so-close to a Big Ten win against at Purdue. Holding a 64-61 lead with 16 seconds left, Penn State appeared on the road to victory until Terone Johnson hit a three-point jumper with Newbill's hand right in his face.
That was okay, though. With six seconds left and the score tied, PSU was in position to win the game or see it go into overtime. At least that's what appeared to be the case until Frazier had the ball knocked out of his hands upon receiving the in-bounds pass. Sterling Carter came away with the steal and Matt Painter called timeout to give the Boilers a chance to win with a little over one second left on the clock.
It sure looked like A.J. Hammons traveled after catching the in-bounds pass under the rim, but the refs called a foul on Ross Travis. Hammons hit the first of two free throws, and that was all she wrote. Penn State had blown yet another late-game lead.
I'm not one to fuss over one blown lead, or even two. Sometimes the bounces just don't go your way. Three, however, is fringing on the ridiculous range and is beyond frustrating. On Saturday night, Penn State forced Purdue into 32 percent shooting and 16 turnovers, and yet still lost in the final seconds.
No matter how hard Frazier and Newbill battle, the team is going to continue to come up short unless the supporting cast plays better. Brandon Taylor needs to pull himself out of whatever hole he's in and re-learn to shoot the ball like he did in the non-conference slate. Travis and Donovon Jack need to be more consistent performers on both sides of the ball, and John Johnson needs to play more within the flow of the offense instead of chucking up threes whenever he feels like it.
There's still plenty of chances for Penn State to pick up wins this season. The next three home games are versus Nebraska, Purdue and Illinois, so it will take extraordinary bad luck for the Lions to go winless much longer. At 9-10 overall, though, an NIT bid appears to be already out of the question, and that's a shame considering how talented Penn State's backcourt is.