As someone who was relatively bullish on Penn State basketball heading into the 2014 season, I'm happy to say that I've been pleasantly surprised at how the non-conference schedule has gone so far. The Nittany Lions look like a legitimate college basketball team that knows how to put the ball in the hoop.
This burst of offensive skill has really only yielded "big" wins over LaSalle and St. John's so far, but if Penn State can keep scoring like they have been, the team will at least be a pain in the neck for conference foes in January and February.
Not surprisingly, a main factor in the offense's rise from 100.4 points per possession last season to 114.2 this season has been point guard Tim Frazier. The graduate student is handing out 7.2 assists per game and will eventually be recognized as one of the best at his position in the country. Even with the talent around him being a lot better than the last time he played a full season in 2012, Frazier has kept his scoring average around 18 points per game. He's found a terrific balance between setting up his teammates and looking for his own shot.
Of course, it's must easier to share when you have a teammate like D.J. Newbill. The junior, who was overwhelmed as Penn State's leading ball-handler last season, has continued to put up numbers as a shooting guard this season. The difference is that with Frazier handling the point, Newbill is a much more efficient scorer and is not turning the ball over nearly as much.
The presence of Frazier means that Newbill isn't drawing quite as many fouls as he did in 2013, but he's still attacking the basket effectively. The biggest change in Newbill's game, though, has been his three-point shooting. Last season, he shot just 27 percent from beyond the arc, but now Newbill is a player that opponents actually have to close out on. He's made 45 percent so far, and while I doubt that will hold up in Big Ten play, it's a great sign for a player who struggled with his jump shot last year.
The boost in field goal percentage is not just something localized around Newbill. The entire squad is much better at jump shooting and getting layups than it was in 2013. Ross Travis couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with his shots last year (35 percent from the field), but this season he's hitting 45 percent of his shots. Brandon Taylor has boosted his three-point shooting from 29 percent to 37 percent, and Donovan Jack has shown himself to be a surprisingly adept three-point shooter (8-for-16) when given the chance in addition to being a decent shot blocker.
Speaking of shot blocking, this Penn State team isn't going to be slowing down Big Ten teams much in January. Jack is still too slight to guard the beefier centers of the league, and Taylor can't really guard anyone effectively. I can see players like Frank Kaminsky, Adreian Payne, and Aaron White having a lot of fun playing against PSU.
The good news is that the Lions haven't been giving their opponents many extra opportunities to go on offense. The team has turned the ball over on just 12.9 percent of its possessions, which is good for second in all of Division I. Thanks in part to more competent teammates, Frazier has cut his personal turnover rate from 18.9 percent two seasons ago to just 15.2 percent so far this season. Newbill, with his struggles at the point guard position in 2013, turned the ball over four times per game last year. With Frazier running the show, however, Newbill has just lost two turnovers per game.
While defense will remain a problem for Penn State in 2014, the team is checking off every item on my offensive wish list so far. Frazier has been as incredible as ever and is helping the team hold onto the ball. Newbill has become a more selective shooter now that all the weight isn't on his shoulders anymore, and the forwards are no longer stranded in brick city. This is a team that has the tools it needs to score points on Big Ten opponents and maybe even give the illusion of an NCAA Tournament run.
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