As Penn State basketball enters its fourth season under head coach Pat Chambers, fans are asking a lot of the same questions that they asked when the program was led by Ed DeChellis. Is Penn State basketball moving forward under Chambers or is it about to hit a lull after the graduation of its best player? Can Penn State ever be a consistent winner with Chambers, or will he be dependent on unearthing a diamond in the rough every few years? Does the school need a "big name" coach to push recruiting to the next level or do fans just need to be patient and let the current coach build the program?
We should at least get closer to finding answers to those questions starting in November, and that's why 2015 is such an important season for Penn State basketball. After going 16-18 in 2014 and missing out on significant postseason play, the Lions can't afford to take a step back with Tim Frazier lost to graduation. D.J. Newbill, who at times looked like Penn State's most valuable player last season, must be the straw that stirs the drink this season. He was overwhelmed in that role following Frazier's Achilles injury in 2013, but last year Newbill became a more efficient scorer thanks to his ability to draw fouls and improved shot selection.
With Frazier gone, there is a fear that Newbill will once again be forced to miss a lot of shots in order to support the offense, but he's got a lot more help than he had two years ago. The forward trio of Ross Travis, Brandon Taylor, and Donovon Jack isn't going to draw any Anthony Davis comparisons, but that frontcourt is more offensively capable than any we've seen in the Chambers era. Newbill won't have to force as many shots when he's got forwards who can post up as well as hurt opposing defenses from the outside.
The Lions need to show that they can do more than just replace Frazier with Newbill and finish around .500 again. The defense is bound to get better with four starters returning to the lineup, but Chambers will need to get more from his young players as well. Sophomore Geno Thorpe and incoming freshman Shep Garner are a couple of breakout candidates whose performance in 2015 will have a big impact on both the present and future of the program.
Thorpe was utilized mostly for his defense in 2014, but he showed the type of athleticism and nose for the rim that can make him very useful on offense as well. If Chambers wants Newbill to work off the ball again in 2015, Thorpe could see some time at point guard, but he'll have to work on his ball handling this summer in order to push his way past junior college transfer Devin Foster on the depth chart. Out of Vincennes University in Dayton, Ohio, Foster was recruited by Chambers to make sure that this year's squad won't be sunk by the lack of a floor general.
Another candidate for the starting point guard spot is Garner, who is the most important player to watch for Penn State fans with an eye on the future. Scouts aren't in agreement about whether the incoming freshman is a point guard or a shooting guard, but they do praise his maturity, range, and handle. As a three-star recruit out of Philadelphia, Garner's progress this season will have an impact on how successful the Lions will be once Newbill graduates as well as how effectively Chambers can continue to recruit in his hometown.
With so much guard talent on his roster, Chambers won't be able to hide behind the departure of Frazier if this year's Penn State team doesn't surpass last year's win total. Newbill is all set to become one of the best players in the Big Ten, Foster has been brought in to plug the point guard hole, and the forwards should be good enough to not hold everyone else back. If Chambers's Lions struggle again, the questions we ask next summer won't be any easier.