The Penn State non-conference experience didn't blow anyone's mind or give any sign that the team was ready for an NCAA Tournament run. Pat Chambers's squad endured painful losses to Bucknell and Princeton, but there were wins over LaSalle and St. John's that were buoyed by an explosive offense that was unlike anything Penn State fans had seen since Talor Battle was running the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center.
After a 2012-13 season in which it seemed that no one could hit a field goal, Penn State could suddenly score from all over the court. The penetration of Tim Frazier allowed D.J. Newbill to work off the ball and not create his own shot as much. Sophomore forwards Brandon Taylor and Donovon Jack showed much improved three-point shooting, which led to great floor spacing thanks to opposing big men being pulled away from the basket.
Sure, the defense needed a makeover, but as long as the offense kept on pressuring opponents, Penn State seemed destined for an NIT bid at the very least.
After two conference games, postseason play doesn't seem like as much as a certainty for these Nittany Lions. While losses at home versus Michigan State and on the road at Illinois aren't heartbreaking defeats, it's the way that Penn State lost those games that raises questions about the team going forward.
Against Michigan State in the Big Ten opener, Penn State came out looking like it was ready to compete with the league's top teams. Newbill and Taylor were knocking down shots at will while an aggressive defense created easy opportunities in transition. Penn State led 47-40 at the break, but then the beautiful horse-drawn carriage of an offense turned back into a pumpkin.
Outside shots stopped falling, as Frazier failed to create good opportunities for himself and others. Ross Travis never got very involved in the offense, and John Johnson failed to have the impact off the bench that he showed in the non-conference finale against Mount St. Mary's. Instead of being the team forcing turnovers, the Lions were the ones giving up transition opportunities to Michigan State. The Spartans ran Penn State off the floor in the second half on the way to a 79-63 win.
Against Illinois on Saturday, matters did not improve much. PSU was able to hold the Illini offense in check for the first half, but the Penn State attack was miserable for the entire 40 minutes. Meanwhile, Tracy Abrams sparked an offensive renaissance for Illinois in the second half that led the home team to victory.
It was nice to see Johnson have a solid game off the bench (18 points, 6-for-11 shooting), but Frazier once again showed that his high non-conference field goal percentage may have been a mirage. He finished 3-for-11 from the floor, which was a sparkling figure compared to the 1-for-13 that Travis and Taylor combined for. With Newbill also struggling with his shot, the Lions could not keep up with Illinois in the second half.
Losing by double figures twice in the first week of Big Ten play is not a good sign for Penn State, but at the same time, going 0-2 against a pair of 2-0 teams isn't the end of the world. This week, there is opportunity for PSU to redeem itself with home games versus Minnesota and Indiana. If the team can find the offense that sparked the team in the first half against MSU and play more consistently, one or even two wins isn't out of the question. Another two losses, though, would make any postseason appearance feel like a fantasy.