The Nittany Lions are off to their best start since 1997, with their only loss coming in double overtime. They've done it mostly by squeaking by inferior opponents. There are two schools of thought when it comes to Penn State's early success. Some fans think that as long as they are winning, score doesn't matter, but most fans think the Nittany Lions should be winning by more comfortable margins. In this column, I will lay out the argument for both sides of this debate.
"Just Win, Baby"
Last season Penn State finished the non-conference schedule at 9-4. Every win was by 7 or more points (they won by 7 in OT against St. Johns). In games decided by 5 points or less, they were 0-2, including a 2nd half collapse at home to Princeton. They also lost by 10 at home to a hot shooting Bucknell. In the few close games that they played, they were unable to make winning plays, and this trend continued into the Big Ten schedule where they lost their first three games that were decided by 5 points or less. They eventually righted themselves, going 4-2 the rest of the season in games decided by 5 or less points.
This season, Penn State has made the right plays in end of game situations, and they are winning these close games that they might have lost in previous seasons. They are 4-1 so far in games decided by 5 points or less, or in overtime. And in the one loss, they made a furious late game comeback, including a three pointer at the buzzer to send the game to overtime. They have been making winning plays in end of game situations, a skill that becomes even more valuable once conference play rolls around. It can mean the difference between a 6-12 record and a 9-9 record. D.J. Newbill has the skill set to take over games in the closing minutes. He has shown a killer instinct that can't be taught. And the supporting cast has made the right plays at the right time. John Johnson has made 2 threes in the final seconds of tight games, and freshman Shep Garner has looked like a fifth year senior in the final minutes, making good decisions and knocking down his free throws. These are things that Pat Chambers' teams have lacked the last 3 years, and it is finally starting to come together for his team.
They Shouldn't Have Been In These Close Games.
Penn State has played one game ranked in KenPom's top 100, and they lost that game to 96th ranked Charlotte. Their best win is against 120th ranked Akron. They've only won 2 games by more than 10 points, the first 2 games of the season. D.J. Newbill and company haven't been able to put together 40 minutes of quality basketball, and it has forced them to play their starters more than they should have to this early in the season. Once Big Ten play starts, they will be playing top 60 teams in almost every game. If they play the way they have so far, Penn State won't even have a chance in the final 2 minutes of the game. The frontcourt has been terrible against weak teams. Donovon Jack and Jordan Dickerson will get pushed around in the tough Big Ten, and teams will double team D.J. Newbill any chance they get. The role players have not proven that they can lead the team to victory in games where Newbill struggles. Penn State won't be able to match the 6 Big Ten wins they had last season if they play like they have been.
I tend to lean towards the 2nd argument at this point in the season, but there have been glimpses that this team can put it all together. They were able to put together their best half of the season in the 2nd half against Akron. If can play like that for an entire games, they will have enough late game experience to steal a few games and make some noise in the Big Ten. They have avoided they ugly loss so far this year, something that they haven't been able to do in recent memory. KenPom's 55th rated team, George Washington comes to the BJC on Sunday. It will be a good barometer for where they stand before entering the conference slate.