Coming into the 2013-14 college basketball season, it was easy to paint a picture of an improved Penn State basketball team. Tim Frazier had finally recovered from the Achilles tendon tear that limited him to four games the year before, and the rest of the supporting cast would be improved with experience.
Now that the Lions have won more Big Ten games in 2014 than they did all of last season, it's clear that the team has improved. Frazier, as expected, has played a big role in that with 16.2 points and 6.4 assists per game, but he hasn't been the best player on the team during Penn State's recent three-game winning streak. That honor belongs to D.J. Newbill.
The transfer from Southern Miss was asked to carry a huge load last season -- his first with the Lions -- after Frazier went down. His usage rate was a whopping 30.9 percent (only 27 players in the country ended a greater percentage of their teams' possessions), and he grabbed the conference's attention with 16.3 points and 4.0 assists per game.
However, the heavy lifting that Newbill was asked to do took its toll on the combo guard's shooting and turnover rates. He shot just 40.5 percent from the field (26.7 percent from beyond the arc) and turned the ball over 3.9 times per game for an assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 1:1. Those are not the kind of statistics that lend themselves to winning basketball games.
In 2014, Newbill's game is much improved, and he looks like a conference Player of the Year candidate. With Frazier handling the ball much of the time, Newbill finally has some room to breathe, and the statistics show a more efficient player. He's only turning the ball over 2.2 times per game, but his scoring has managed to rise to 17.6 points per game. A lot of that is due to a smoother jump shot that Newbill can use to score from anywhere on the floor. He's hitting 37.8 percent of his three-point shots this season and is shooting 47.3 percent from the field overall.
Newbill's talents were on full display during Penn State's overtime upset of Ohio State last week. Towards the end of regulation, he hit a pair of clutch three-pointer to tie the game. At the end of overtime, Newbill took on the Big Ten's best defensive player, Aaron Craft, one-on-one. A devastating cross-over dribble opened up just enough space for him to sink the game-winning 15-foot jumper.
Frazier may still be the leader of the Penn State basketball team, but that torch is going to be passed at the end of the season when the senior graduates. With the way his game has evolved this season, Newbill is equipped to get Penn State over the NCAA Tournament hump in 2015. Opponents now have to respect his jump shot, and that just makes Newbill's main asset -- his ability to drive to the basket -- all the more effective.
Penn State may or may not qualify for the NIT this season. A lot of that will depend on how Frazier and Newbill play down the stretch and how much help they get from the supporting cast. What is certain is that the team can't be written off next season because of Frazier's departure. Newbill has the talent to be a leading man in 2015. The only question is whether Ross Travis and others can step up and give him the teammates he needs to lift Penn State to greater heights.
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