When you look at the best college basketball teams in the country, you notice that they are usually elite on both sides of the ball. A little further down the list you have pretty good teams that probably excel at one aspect of the game and are just mediocre at the other. Down at the bottom of the list you have teams that are atrocious at one aspect of the game and it doesn't matter how good they are at the other one.
For much of recent history, Penn State hasn't been what you would call a good basketball team. Often, turning in atrocious seasons. Now, they made the tourney in 2011 due to the yeoman's effort of Talor Battle and have shown flashes of above averageness here and there, but they are usually considered a doormat in the B1G. The main culprit last year for PSU was, well, everything. They ranked 298th in the country in points per game (170th in KenPom's adjusted offensive stats) and 216th in points allowed per game (144th on KenPom's adjusted defensive list). They were one of the teams at the bottom of the list. This year, things are extremely different on offense as the Lions are the 31st best team in the country in points per game (46th for KenPom), averaging a touch over 81 every time they hit the court. However, things have gotten worse on defense for the 227th ranked Lions in points allowed (158th for KenPom). With conference play nigh, it's time to examine what the 9-4 Nittany Lions did during their non-conference slate and what PSU fans can look forward to the rest of the season.
Scoring The Ball Will Not Be A Problem
Enough with the negativity, let's talk about something at which Penn State is quite good: offense. PSU has been giving opponents fits with its ability to fill the hoop this year. The team is averaging 20 points per game more than they did last season and is five points better than any season since 1997-98. That is the main reason they are only one win away from matching last season's win total before conference play even starts. The Lions boast four players averaging double digits (five if you include transfer John Johnson, who has only played in one game (we will discuss later) with two players scoring at a clip of more than 18 points per night. DJ Newbill is leading the conference in scoring with 18.9 PPG and Tim Frazier is not far behind with 18.2. Frazier also leads the conference (and is third in the WHOLE COUNTRY) with 7.5 assists per game. It's not difficult to see why State's offense is clicking. Their best players are shooting well, Newbill is shooting over 50% from the field, and their star point guard is distributing the ball at a nation leading pace.
The offense is balanced too, with the top seven in the rotation all chipping in with seven plus points per game. The potential catalyst to turn the PSU offense from very good to great is junior transfer from Pitt, John Johnson. After sitting out last year and the first semester of this year, Johnson played in his first game for the Lions on December 22 and dropped 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting and lead the team's comeback win over Mount St. Mary's. Johnson won't start due to Newbill and Frazier being pretty good at scoring in their own right, but he will be the first guy off the bench and a "just add water for offense" guy the Lions need.
Creating Turnovers Will Be A Problem
Penn State only forces 10.6 turnovers per game. That's bad. It's just another piece of the "Why Is The Penn State Defense So Bad?" puzzle along with the giving up way too many points thing. Penn State forces a turnover on 14.9% of their opponents possessions, which is better than only 22 other teams in the nation. In the B1G, and almost anywhere, good defense will beat good offense every day of the week and when PSU is matched up against conference foes with elite defenses like Ohio State, their lack of ability to create turnovers could lead to some ugly final scores. The top teams in the conference take care of the rock like the prized possession it is and if Penn State couldn't force enough turnovers against the likes of Wagner and Bucknell, it doesn't seem likely that Wisconsin will be forced into a lot of miscues by the lax Lions defense.
What To Look For The Rest Of The Way
Michigan State and a road test at Illinois loom for the Lions in their first two conference games, but their next two are home contests against Minnesota and an average Indiana team. If Penn State can find a way to split these four games and build a little momentum, they could be dangerous all conference season. If they start off 0-4, which given last season isn't out of the question (0-14 to start conference play), I fear the Lions are doomed to another losing season. The offense is there for PSU to succeed. What will decide how competitive, and ultimately if postseason play is in the cards, is whether or not the defense can improve against superior opponents.