The first three seasons of the Pat Chambers experience haven't exactly been a joy ride for Penn State or its fans. The head coach, who Penn State lured away from Boston University following Ed DeChellis's stunning departure in 2011, inherited an inexperienced roster and then had to deal with his best player Tim Frazier tearing an Achilles tendon in November 2012. In 2014, things finally started to move forward when Frazier returned to play the point and D.J. Newbill showed the makings of a star shooting guard.
Still, a struggling and inconsistent foward rotation made for a 16-18 season for the Lions. Even with Frazier graduating and reserve guard Graham Woodward transferring from the program, hopes are high for Chambers and company to push above the .500 mark. With Newbill and three other starters returning, anything less would be a big disappointment.
Last season, Frazier and Newbill combined for over 30 points and seven assists per game, forming one of the best guard duos in the country. The problem is that Penn State's weak frontcourt meant that the team often had to play with three guards. Woodward brought some decent ball handling skills to the table, but he was mostly used as a spot-up shooter in 2014. The other freshman guard on last year's squad, Geno Thorpe, is more athletic than Woodward and was mostly used for defense. When given some room to breathe on offense, Thorpe showed an ability to get to the rim, but his jump shot is still a work in progress. The rising sophomore will probably start this season coming off the bench unless he shows a drastic improvement over the summer.
The departures of Frazier and Woodward left a massive hole at point guard, but Chambers was able to fill that with junior college transfer Devin Foster. Coming out of Vincennes University in Dayton, Ohio, not much is known about Foster, but he's already one of the most important players on Penn State's roster. If his 40 percent three-point shooting and 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio carry over from the junior college ranks, the 6'1" Foster will help the Lions tremendously this season.
The other newcomers at guard are freshmen Shep Garner and Isaiah Washington. Garner is considered to be a combo guard who is a little small to be forging his way to the hoop, but he has shooting range and also the unselfish personality of a point guard. Washington isn't highly regarded as an offensive player, but he has the length and athleticism necessary to become a great defender. Look for Garner to backup either guard spot at the outset of the season, while Washington may need some seasoning before he sees serious playing time.
Making things complicated for Chambers will be redshirt junior John Johnson. After transferring from Pitt in 2012, Johnson sat out the 2012-13 season and last year didn't do much to help the Lions on either side of the ball. He always looked like he had more confidence than actual ability, lofting up ill-timed jumpers and making just 38 percent of his shots while playing matador-style defense. Penn State fans should hope that Johnson won't get in the way of younger players if he hasn't improved his game since March.
The guard rotation for Penn State has depth and skill, but the forwards are blessed with just experience. There wasn't too much to see here last season, as the frontcourt mostly held the Lions back from having an especially productive season. Brandon Taylor can stretch the floor and post up a little bit, but he did neither with enough efficiency last year to become a consistent weapon. Ross Travis is a player who helps out a lot more with rebounding and defense, but his offensive game is still in development with a jump shot that opposing defenses don't need to get worked up about.
The true big men on Chambers' roster are a little more intriguing. Donovon Jack is a terrific shot blocker at 6'9" and he can open up the floor on offense with his three-point shooting. Jordan Dickerson fouled way too often as a freshman last season, but when he was on the floor, he proved to be an intimidating shot blocker who can also run the floor and finish at the rim. There's still not one forward on the roster who has proved to be a consistent scorer, but if Taylor or Ross improves on offense and Dickerson learns to stay on the floor for more than a few minutes at a time, the Lions should be better than they were in 2013-14.
There's no new size coming into the program this year, but both Payton Banks and Julian Moore redshirted last season and could give the team a boost. Banks is a player that I wrote about last November who kind of reminds me of former PSU star Jamelle Cornely. Now, if he really was Cornely, Banks would probably be impacting the team as a freshman, so I don't have huge hopes, but Banks could prove useful considering the lack of productive small forwards on the roster. Moore is more of a center who is long and athletic and is said to be able to run the floor quite well. At first glance, he seems a little too similar to Dickerson, but if Moore has any semblance of an offensive game, he could give the Lions some useful minutes in the near future.
PG: Foster, Thorpe
SG: Newbill, Garner, Johnson, Washington
SF: Taylor, Banks
C: Jack, Dickerson, Moore
The abundance of shooting guards on this chart means that Penn State will often go with a three-guard lineup with one of the extra twos playing at small forward. With the way Chambers has constructed his squad, a "four around one" lineup isn't out of the question, but ideally a setup that small would have more shooting ability. If Garner shows he can play right away, expect to see him on the wing with Taylor and Ross sharing time at power forward. That's the starting lineup I would expect to see around the start of Big Ten play in 2015. At the outset in November, we'll probably see a more traditional lineup like "Foster, Newbill, Taylor, Travis, Jack," but eventually one of the backup guards will probably play his way past Taylor on the depth chart.