Penn State basketball and optimism don't usually go very well together. The program has just two NCAA Tournament appearances since the turn of the century. How do you become optimistic about that outlook? Well, it's more than Northwestern or Rutgers have accomplished, so there's that.
Putting the past in the past, though, here are five reasons to be hopeful about this season's Nittany Lions.
Tim Frazier wasn't all that efficient last year.
One of the biggest question marks coming into the season is the point guard position. How do the Lions replace Tim Frazier, a player who is the all-time school leader in assists? Finding someone else with Frazier's distribution skills may be impossible on this roster. Devin Foster has been imported from junior college, but he's slated to begin the campaign as a bench player, although I think he should be slotted into the opening night lineup.
Frazier's scoring, though, should be a little easier to replace. He's not a great shooter and therefore isn't very efficient at putting the ball in the hoop. By the end of 2013-14, it was D.J. Newbill who the Lions turned to when they needed a bucket. Fortunately, that guy is still on the team. If a forward like Brandon Taylor or Ross Travis, or freshman guard Shep Garner can step up their scoring outputs, Penn State should be able to continue raising their offensive profile.
Devin Foster is here to run the point.
No, he's still technically not a starter, but Foster should at least get a chance seeing as how he's the only pure point guard on the Penn State roster. Right now, head coach Pat Chambers is saying that Newbill will start in that spot, but the senior is coming off of a terrific year playing off the ball. When Frazier was lost to injury in 2012-13, Newbill played the point and was a much less efficient player. Although the situation in 2014-15 is a lot better for Newbill -- he's a more advanced player and the supporting cast is more talented -- I'd still rather see him at his natural shooting guard position. If Foster plays well early on, he should get a chance to star in the point guard role and give the Lions a more natural distributor.
Four out of five starters are back.
Even with Foster stepping in, Frazier is a big loss to make up for. Fortunately, the rest of last season's starting lineup is still on the team. Taylor, Travis, and Donovon Jack are a talented enough forward trio that has a chance to show more of its potential in 2014-15. Newbill is one of the Big Ten's ten best players, even if the national media has yet to notice him.
We know Newbill is going to be great, though, because he already is. Penn State taking a step forward this season is dependent on one of the forwards or the second guard (Geno Thorpe, John Johnson, Garner?) taking the step from role player to star alongside Newbill. The best bet for this is probably Travis because he just has to become a more consistent scorer to become a force to be reckoned with. His athleticism and rebounding skills are already among the best in the conference.
The non-conference schedule is pretty soft.
A non-conference slate that features just one 2014 NCAA Tournament squad won't make Penn State a better team, but it should make its record look good at the end of the year. The Lions play in the Charleston Classic the week before Thanksgiving and in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge the week after Thanksgiving, but neither event presents an opponent that Penn State can't defeat. The ACC opponent is a still-growing Virginia Tech squad, and the Lions will face Charlotte and either Cornell or South Carolina in Charleston before the tournament final. By the end of December, Penn State fans could be feeling very optimistic about Big Ten season.
Pat Chambers is already a winner at recruiting.
The results haven't shown up on the court yet, but Chambers is using his Philadelphia roots to draw top talent to State College. In 2015, not one but two ESPN Top 100 recruits are entering the program. There's no guarantee that Josh Reaves, a guard from Oak Hill Academy, or Mike Watkins, a defensive-minded center from Philly will turn Penn State basketball into a consistent tourney contender, but it's been a while since Lions fans have seen multiple recruits with more than three stars next to their names.