Penn State will look across the court on Thursday and see a team that is in a position that the Lions imagined for themselves a few months ago. Just like Penn State, Nebraska was not expected to be a serious threat when conference play began on New Year's Eve. Just like Penn State, Nebraska is getting some great performances from a star transfer player that have lifted the team out of the conference cellar.
The main reason is defense. Despite the recent incredible play of Terran Petteway, Nebraska is just 10th in the conference in offensive efficiency with 96.4 points scored per 100 possessions. The Huskers' defense, on the other hand, has surged to fifth place at 101.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. In four of Nebraska's six Big Ten wins, its opponents have scored under 60 points.
Boosted by the efforts of D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier, Penn State has greatly improved on last season's anemic offense and is seventh in the conference in 2014. Holding the team back, though, is the defense, which ranks dead last in the Big Ten. The Lions have just one game this conference season in which they've held an opponent under 60 points: a 58-54 win versus Nebraska on January 23.
So how can Chambers boost Penn State's defensive performance down the stretch of the 2014 season? Playing freshman guard Geno Thorpe more often might help. Thorpe's minutes have been sporadic so far this season. Back in early January he had three straight games with 20 minutes played, but since then he's fallen out of the rotation and is only used when Chambers is looking for a defensive stop or if one of the guards gets into foul trouble.
Part of the reason for Thorpe's relegation is the presence of backup guards John Johnson and Graham Woodward. Both players provide sold depth for a Penn State team that needs help scoring when either Frazier or Newbill are off the floor, but both players also contribute to the Lions' defensive deficiencies.
Woodward in particular has trouble staying in front of bigger, more athletic opponents. On offense, he gets some points back by shooting over 40 percent from three-point range. However, his inability to penetrate opposing defenses means that someone always needs to set up Woodward's shots for him.
Even though Thorpe has played 57 less minutes than Woodward this season, he's attempted 33 more free throws, and his driving and-one layup against Indiana one week ago was a flash of what the more athletic Thorpe can do if granted more playing time.
Johnson is another player who might be more skilled on offense than Thorpe, but his inconsistent defense and inefficient shooting make Johnson a wildcard in any given game. One minute, he's making a brilliant drive to the basket to give Penn State two points out of nowhere. The next, he's lobbing up a ridiculous 25-foot jumper with 20 seconds to go on the shot clock.
Thorpe can't shoot as well as Johnson can, but with the latter shooting 29 percent from three-point range this season, that might be a good thing.The younger Thorpe is more aware of his role on offense; he'll get to the basket when the team needs him to while playing solid defense on the other end.
It's easy to see what Chambers likes in Woodward and Johnson from an offensive standpoint, but the two guards haven't been good enough lately to be getting significantly more playing time than Thorpe. With Penn State's defense struggling to keep pace in the rugged Big Ten, the coach should give the defensive-minded Thorpe more consideration.