After a wild offseason that saw Pat Chambers sign four recruits to the class of 2016, including three from Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, Penn State will have to shift their focus to the players currently in the program. While the success on the recruiting trail is a great sign for the future of basketball in Happy Valley, today we look at three storylines affecting the a Lions' team coming off a 4-14 record in the Big Ten last year.
1. Can the Lions replace D.J. Newbill?
Averaging nearly 21 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists, DJ Newbill was the centerpiece of almost everything the Lions did in 2014-2015. The senior guard attempted 540 field goals, while the next most on the team was just 294 from Brandon Taylor. Newbill accounted for 31% of the Nittany Lions' points while also leading the team in assists and steals. It's easy to see that Pat Chambers will have to look to more than one player to fill the void left by the Newbill, who will be playing overseas professionally in France this season.
Replacing Newbill's offense will be a task that starts with the Nittany Lions' second leading scorer a year ago, Shep Garner. The 6'1'' guard out of Roman Catholic exceeded expectations his freshman year averaging 9.2 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. The biggest thing Garner will have to improve is being more efficient in his sophomore season. Garner shot just 36% from the floor and 34% from beyond the arc. Garner took 8.4 shots per game last season and 5.1 of them were from deep. This happened because a lot of his shots started with the ball in Newbill's hands. This season, Garner will be asked to create more of the offense with the ball starting in his hands.
The other guard I expect to play big minutes for Pat Chambers, especially since the transfer of Geno Thorpe, is Josh Reaves. A top 100 recruit, Reaves will be expected to provide the Lions with offense from the start. The lefty is a great athlete with good touch from outside for an 18-year old so look for him to easily play his way to big minutes in Penn State's lineup.
2. Pat Chambers' Best Recruiting Class
Since arriving at Penn State in 2011, Pat Chambers hasn't necessarily impressed a lot of people, producing no NCAA Tournament appearances and a 16-56 record in the Big Ten. One way to win some people back is on the recruiting trail, and Chambers is beginning to produce on that front. While the class of 2016 may be his prize class, the class of 2015 is impressive as well.
The Lions will bring in previously mentioned shooting guard Josh Reaves along with forwards Mike Watkins and Deividas Zemgulis. Watkins, the third ranked player in PA, should get major minutes like Reaves. He has a college body already at 6'8'' 225 and is also ranked in ESPN's top 100 recruits. While Watkins may not find himself in the starting lineup from the start like Reaves, expect to see the big man earn more and more playing time as the season progresses next to Jordan Dickerson and Donovon Jack up front. Zemgulis, a 6'6'' small forward originally from Lithuania, may be ranked just the 75th best small forward in the class of 2016, but he will be given an opportunity to play on this Penn State team looking for offense. While these three players are not as talented as the 2016 class, they are a great lead in to next year's class and will be given every opportunity to shine in Happy Valley.
3. Winning In The Big Ten
Chambers finally had a winning season in his 4th season at Penn State with an 18-16 record. The only problem is only 4 of the 18 wins came in the Big Ten regular season. The Nittany Lions proved they can beat inferior teams out of conference last year, beating schools like Fordham, Akron, Bucknell, and Duquesne. Chambers' squad even proved they could beat other power 5 conference schools like Souther California and Virginia Tech.
The question remains, however, can Penn State compete consistently in the Big Ten? The Lions saw a 12-1 start last season turn in to 16-15 regular season before going 2-1 in the Big Ten Tournament. While the Big Ten regular season can be a grueling ride for a team like Penn State, the next step for the program is inching closer to a .500 mark in the conference, and lifting themselves out of the bottom of the Big Ten.
The people in Happy Valley have to be somewhat pleased at the direction Penn State's basketball program is heading. The team may have their two best recruiting classes ever in 2015 and 2016. If the class of 2015 can get the program trending upward in Big Ten play this year, expect the 2016 class to come in and possibly kick the door down, giving Chambers his first NCAA Tournament appearance at Penn State. This is a big season for the Nittany Lions to prove they have some talent already in place to combine with the arrival of next years' currently top 10 recruiting class.