The Penn State basketball team last season finally achieved what they had been striving for since Ed DeChellis was named head coach back in 2003. The Nittany Lions finally reached the NCAA tournament after a thrilling Big Ten tournament run that included upsets over Wisconsin and Michigan State on the way to the tournament final.
Now they'll knock the program over and start again from the beginning. Well, not completely from the beginning. Although DeChellis made the surprising move to Navy over the summer, energetic new boss Pat Chambers has been able to hold on to most of DeChellis' class of 2011 recruits to give Penn State a chance at staying out of the conference cellar this season. Although the graduation of senior starters Talor Battle, Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andrew Jones makes a return to the NCAA Tournament a far off dream, Penn State does sport plenty of newcomers who are hungry to make an impact in the Big Ten.
Junior point guard Tim Frazier is the lone starter coming back to school for Penn State, and wouldn't you know it, he's also the Nittany Lion who showed the most growth last season. Frazier did a great job developing from a pass first point to a pass first point who can also draw fouls and shoot a little bit. Although Frazier was adept at dishing the ball all season long (he finished with 5.1 assists per game), he didn't score in double digits until he put up 11 at Ohio State in the middle of January. The biggest factor in Frazier's struggle to score was the lack of confidence in his jumper. Through January, Frazier was just made one of 13 three point shots. That turned around completely later in the season, as the diminutive guard hit 10 of his final 19 threes while continuing to lead the Lions in assists.
Down the stretch, Frazier had two huge games: 22 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists in the Big Ten Tournament semifinal versus Michigan State and 15 points 5 rebounds and 7 assists in the NCAA Tournament loss to Temple. In 2011-12, Penn State will need Frazier to take control of the team and look to score for himself a little more. With Talor Battle out of the picture, Frazier will have the ball a good deal of the time. Like Battle, Frazier isn't afraid to draw contact despite his below average size. If his shot stays as sweet as it was in the second half last season, he can develop into a star player in the Big Ten.
Joining Frazier as Penn State co-captains are senior guard Cammeron Woodyard and redshirt junior forward Billy Oliver. Although both of these guys will likely begin the season as starters thanks to seniority, they will have to improve their games in order to hold off younger, more talented players from taking their jobs. Woodyard has been a good wing defender and little else in his Penn State career thus far. Even on last season's depth-challenged squad, Woodyard logged just 10.4 minutes per game and had a minimal impact on offense with less than two points per game. He's been billed as a good long distance shooter, but he finished just 7 of 37 from beyond the arc. Nittany Lions fans will have to hope Woodyard gets more comfortable on the floor this season, but he has already hit a speed bump with arthroscopic knee surgery that may keep him out for the first few games of the season.
Oliver was an even bigger problem than Woodyard last season because he was just as ineffective, but was on the floor much more often. At 6'8" and 215 lbs., Oliver is listed as a forward, but he was much more comfortable away from the basket last season. It was pretty ugly no matter where he shot from, though. From the field, Oliver was 13 for 32 on two pointers and 11 for 44 on threes. At least maybe he grabbed a few rebounds then? No. Oliver had a miserable 6% defensive rebounding rate according to kenpom.com. Woodyard and Frazier were both over 12%. The good news is that last season was Oliver's first seeing playing time after concussion problems kept him on the shelf for two seasons. Oliver is said to have added 30 pounds of muscle in the off-season and Pat Chambers is impressed with his shooting abilities in practice so far. Still, if Oliver turns into a productive shooter and rebounder this season, it will be considered a huge bonus for Penn State fans.
With Tim Frazier being Penn State's only returning player who has proven himself to be productive, Pat Chambers will need a lot of help from a lot of inexperienced players. Fortunately, Penn State has a trio of potential starters who have at least been in college basketball for more than a few months. The most intriguing of the three is Serbian sophomore forward Sasa Borovnjak. Unlike previous Penn State overseas import disasters, Borovnjak actually has success playing high school ball in the United States. In 2008-09, Borovnjak put up 26 points and 12 rebounds per game for Veritas Christian Academy in North Carolina. After seeing very limited time as a Penn State freshman, Borovnjak redshirted last season after he tore his ACL in preseason practice. Now he's healthy and there's plenty of opportunities for minutes, so it's his time to shine.
Redshirt freshman Jon Graham is another young forward who has a great chance to play his way into the starting lineup. After averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game at Calvert Hall High School in Maryland, Graham apparently made great strides in his game last season. He too is said to have added 30 lbs. of muscle and is said to have great work ethic and attitude. If the tangibles can live up to the intangibles, Penn State could have a solid post player on their hands. Graham's father Ernest was a great player at Marlyand from 1978-1981 and was drafted by the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers.
Sophomore Matt Glover actually has a lot of experience playing college basketball last season, but it wasn't for Penn State. Glover averaged 11.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game for Sheridan Community College in Wyoming. It's unclear how those numbers translate to Division I, but with Jermaine Marshall recently suspended for an indefinite period of time, there's a good chance that Glover begins the season as Penn State's starting shooting guard. At 6'4" and 210 pounds, Glover has good size for the shooting guard position and should at the very least be a solid perimeter defender for Penn State.
Even if the above six players all settle into regular roles (far from a guarantee), that still leaves a couple of spots open for true freshmen to step into if Coach Chambers wants to role with a deep rotation this season. The two guys with the best chance for early playing time are Trey Lewis and Ross Travis. That's a lot of first names for a pair of underclassmen, but let me reassure you, they are just two people. Lewis was runner-up for Mr. Basketball in Ohio last season while leading Garfield Heights on a deep playoff run. He averaged 23 points, 5.1 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game while being a member of the National Honor Society. Lewis is considered a great leader and competitor and he will probably draw some comparisons to Talor Battle. Like Battle, Lewis is described as a combo guard who plays like a shooting guard but has the size (6'1", 180 lbs.) of a point. Obviously it would be a real treat for Penn State fans if Lewis can eventually become the offensive powerhouse that Battle was, but the youngster should already be better on the defensive end. I would expect Lewis to get some run at shooting guard this season while playing a small amount of point guard should Frazier need a rest.
Amazingly, the guy who beat out Lewis for Mr. Basketball was none other than guard Trey Burke, who was originally committed to Penn State but is now a freshman at Michigan. Lewis and Burke actually played on the same AAU team, so the two probably know each other quite well. Besides being a testament to how stacked Ohio State is, the fact that Burke and Lewis are both on Big Ten squads should prove for some interesting PSU vs. Michigan games in the future.
Ross Travis is a lengthy, athletic player who was considered the top basketball prospect coming out of Minnesota for the class of 2011. At Chaska High School last season, Travis put up 20 points, 12 rebounds and 2 blocks per game. He's still developing his mid range shot and ball handling skills, but Travis' 6'6" height and athleticism give him the potential to be a plus defender at multiple positions. He is also considered an excellent passer. Travis seems to be the most raw of Penn State's incoming freshman class, but he should be able to contribute on defense right away.
The other two Penn State freshmen are big men Patrick Ackerman and Peter Alexis. Ackerman is 6'11" and hails from Massachusetts, where he is already said to have developed a solid mid-range jump shot. However, Ackerman needs to add some size in order to become the post defender and scorer that Penn State needs him to be. He was actually nominated for the 2011 McDonald's All-American basketball game, so there's certainly some talent there to work with.
Alexis is "only" 6'10", but his thicker frame makes him more likely to get playing time this season for Penn State. He doesn't have the kind of potential of Ackerman, but Alexis is the biggest dude that Penn State has and may prove valuable as an offensive rebounder and post defender. Look for Coach Chambers to get Alexis comfortable in the non-conference schedule so that he's got at least some experience for when he's needed against the bruisers of the Big Ten.
Pat Chambers has his work cut out for him in his first season as Penn State head coach. Although the freshman class is talented, there's not nearly enough experienced talent for PSU to be successful in the Big Ten this season. The good news for Chambers is that he can pretty much mold this team to his liking over the next few seasons in his effort to get Penn State back to the NCAA Tournament. Chambers also has talented Southern Miss transfer (and Philadelphia native) D.J. Newbill on the team. Although the sophomore swingman won't be able to play for Penn State until the 2012-13 season, he has a great chance to slide right into the starting lineup at that time.
Jermaine Marshall is a guard who flashed some potential last year, but his status with the program right now makes it seem unlikely that he'll see the floor at all this season. Even if Newbill and Marshall were able to play, it would still be a surprise to see Penn State finish in any place but last in the Big Ten. For PSU fans, however, there are still plenty of reasons to watch. With so many opportunities for young players to get playing time, the future of Penn State basketball will be impacted heavily by this season.