The upcoming basketball season looks to be a pivotal one for those riding on the Pat Chambers bandwagon. Although the coach combined to win just 22 games during his first two years in Happy Valley, last season saw some improvement with a 16-18 campaign along with a CBI berth. Now, Chambers' best player has graduated and the team will be expected to get better without Tim Frazier running the point.
Just how is this going to happen? Taking over at the one will be D.J. Newbill, a very talented shooting guard who can break down a defense all by himself. Newbill struggled at the point during his sophomore season when Tim Frazier was injured, but now with more experience and a much more talented supporting cast, Chambers is going back with the Philadelphia native as his floor general. The team also brought in Devin Foster, a junior point guard out of Vincennes University in Indiana as a JUCO transfer who could see major minutes at point guard down the line. For now, at least, he's coming off the bench.
Projected Starting Lineup
PG: D.J. Newbill
SG: Geno Thorpe
SF: Brandon Taylor
PF: Ross Travis
C: Donovon Jack
Newbill, Taylor, Travis, and Jack all started last year, so those four are locked in. The question is whether Thorpe or senior John Johnson starts at shooting guard. Johnson was pretty horrendous last season, and Thorpe is just a sophomore with plenty of upside left. That's why I'm going with Thorpe, but I wouldn't be shocked to see Chambers stick with the senior Johnson until Thorpe takes the job away from him.
There's also the possibility of Foster taking over the point later in the season with Newbill shifting to the two. That depends on how well Newbill runs the point as well as Foster's transition to Division I basketball.
What to Watch For
Can Newbill be a distributor? That's the biggest question in the early going for Chambers' squad. As a freshman, Newbill ran the point and dished out 4.0 assists per game but also turned the ball over 3.9 times per game. Not the ideal ratio for a Division I distributor. Last season as a shooting guard with Frazier at the one, Newbill saw his assists drop to 1.7 per game but also sunk his turnovers to 2.1 per game. A lot has changed for both Newbill and the supporting cast since the guard was a sophomore, so we should see some improvement.
Plus, as Eric Gibson points out in this lovely article, Newbill is an expert at creating his own shot and does not need to work off the ball to score. There's still the question of how much Newbill can help his teammates, and that's a major thing to look for during the non-conference slate.
Who will the second scorer be? Last year's "Frazier and Newbill and pray for Taylor" strategy did not work out too well for the Nittany Lions, who finished ninth in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency. Now that Frazier is gone, the team needs one (or ideally, two) guys to step up and become dependable scorers. Johnson was erratic in 2013-14, so my hope is that Thorpe harnesses his athleticism and turns into a slasher capable of creating havoc in the paint.
Barring that, Brandon Taylor could be a matchup nightmare if he manages to make his jump shot and post game more consistent. There were flashes of each last season, but not enough to make him a consistent threat. Ross Travis is talented, but his best chance of scoring was always off the offensive glass. If he can develop a jump shot, the Lions might have another big-time player on their hands. Sure, that's a lot of "if"s, but such is the life of a Penn State basketball fan.
The soft non-conference schedule: Spoiler alert. I have Penn State going undefeated in the non-conference schedule, but I'm not the only one! KenPom (smart guy, subscription required) does as well. It's not crazy. There's just not many good teams in there. During the Charleston Classic tournament, the Lions could end up facing a team as tough as Miami (FL), but even that's a winnable contest. Odds are that Penn State slips up somewhere, but they should be favored in every game. Optimism ahoy!
Who to Watch For
Ross Travis: For Penn State to be seriously competitive this season, at least one of the starting forwards needs to step up and become a force in the post. We saw last season how even an offense backed by two very talented guards can struggle without consistent frontcourt play. As the most talented forward on the roster, I nominate Travis to become a major offensive force in 2014-15. The last two really good Penn State teams in recent memory (2008-09, 2010-11) each had a talented forward to balance out guard scoring (Jamelle Cornley, Jeff Brooks), and this squad needs its own version of that.
Devin Foster: We know Newbill can score from the point guard spot, but his ability to make his teammates better is still a major question mark as the season approaches. Enter Foster, the junior college transfer who averaged more than four assists per game at Vincennes University last season. If he's able to adjust to the Division I game quickly, Foster can boost the productivity of the starting five, especially if Thorpe or Johnson isn't working out at shooting guard.
Shep Garner: With a deep guard rotation already present on the roster, Garner isn't expected to play much this season, but he's a guy to watch as Penn State's most talented freshman. A combo guard out of Chester, Pennsylvania, Garner is a dark horse for the backup point guard role as well as a threat to provide scoring off the bench. With Chambers' 2015 class already getting a lot of hype, Garner is going to fly under the radar, but he's an important part of Penn State's future.
With a soft non-conference schedule and a team that is talented enough to replicate last year's Big Ten win total, Penn State is set up well to get back to the NIT. Yes, the loss of Frazier will be felt at the point guard spot, but there is enough talent on this team to improve on the 2014-15 campaign that went 16-18 overall. If not, Chambers will have to rely on his next crop of freshmen to prove that he's the man to lead Penn State in the future.
Projected Regular Season Record: 19-12 (6-12)