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2015-16 Penn State Nittany Lions Basketball Season Preview

BTPowerhouse previews the upcoming season for the Penn State Nittany Lions and what fans should expect for the program heading into the 2015-16 season.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The ‘2015-16 BTPowerhouse Season Preview' series will take an in-depth look at all 14 teams in the Big Ten heading into the 2015-16 season with analysis on each program's previous season, offseason departures, new additions, strengths, weakness, top player, and top storylines. Each post will also include predictions on each team's starting lineup, season performance and commentary from a local "insider" who covers each team.

Though Penn State has not seen a lot of success on the court recently, the program has put many fans into a unique thought process about the team and head coach Patrick Chambers. Fans have remained excited and hopeful about the future of the program, but have also simultaneously acknowledged that Chambers has yet to actually win anything significant during his four year tenure with the program.

Chambers has been recruiting well, has seen star players come through the program, and has even sent some players to the NBA (and the NFL oddly enough), but has also put together just a 56-75 (.427) career record with the program. As most are aware, Penn State has never been a blueblood basketball program in the likes of Kansas, Kentucky, and UCLA, but fans still hope for more than 16 conference wins over four seasons.

Nonetheless, even with an underwhelming start to his tenure in State College, there is a lot to be hopeful about for the Nittany Lions heading into this season. After all, if Chambers can start to show some progress on the court, perhaps things can finally start to build. There are some major challenges this year due to the losses of DJ Newbill, Geno Thorpe, and Ross Travis, but Penn State does have some important returners and arguably the program's best incoming recruiting class in years to help.

This year's Penn State team lacks a proven star and will be pretty inexperienced, but the team should also be more diverse than it was last year with options throughout the lineup. As such, the days of the "one man show" are likely gone for the Nittany Lions. It's hard to speculate on whether that's a good or bad thing, but this could very well be the base of something special for Penn State long-term.

There's a mix of uncertainty and optimism for Penn State, so let's take a look at what that means next season.

BTPowerhouse Season Preview Podcast

Along with reading BTPowerhouse's season preview post for the Penn State Nittany Lions, make sure to check out the site's podcast preview of the Nittany Lions, featuring BTPowerhouse Manager Thomas Beindit and Black Shoe Diaries Contributor Chad Markulics breaking down Penn State's roster, incoming recruits, schedule, and season outlook.

Check Out Basketball Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with BTPowerhouse Podcast on BlogTalkRadio

1. 2014-15 Season Performance

  • Record: 18-16 (4-14)
  • KenPom Team Rating: #82
  • RPI Rating: #108
  • Postseason Appearance: None

Last season had its moments for the Nittany Lions, but the collapse in conference play ultimately doomed what was looked to be an exciting season early on. Penn State started the season at 12-1, but finished by going 6-15 over its final 21 games. There's no doubt that the Nittany Lions built the 12-1 record due to some weak opponents, but it's hard to rationalize how much things changed in the second half of the year. Overall, even with the bright start, it was another disappointing season for Chambers in State College.

In my 2014-15 Big Ten Recapitulation Series, this is what I wrote in my "Final Verdict" on Penn State:

Analyzing Penn State's 2014-15 season is an interesting challenge.  On paper, the team took no serious steps forward.  In 2013-14, the Nittany Lions finished with an overall record of 16-18, a Big Ten record of 6-12 that put the team next to last in the conference, and finished at #82 overall on KenPom.  In 2014-15, the Nittany Lions finished with an overall record of 18-16, a Big Ten record of 4-14 that put the team next to last in the conference, and finished at #82 on KenPom.  The wins came in different spots, but for all intents and purposes, this was the same team.

. . .

The Nittany Lions had their moments in 2014-15, but ultimately, they were too few and far between in the games that mattered to view the season as anything other than a forgettable one.

As mentioned, there isn't much debating that part of the reason that Penn State lost more games later in the year was because the schedule got tougher. In fact, 10 of Penn State's 12 wins to open the season were against teams that finished at #152 or lower on KenPom.

Still, even if the team built its 12-1 record off a soft slate, the Nittany Lions let a lot of winnable games slip away. For instance, not only did Penn State lose to both Northwestern and Rutgers late in the year, but the team also lost 11 conference games by 10 points or less. If the team even wins half of those games, it's probably in at least the NIT.

Highlights of the season included Penn State's wins over George Washington, Iowa, and a season sweep of Minnesota. All four teams finished in the top 80 on KenPom and the Hawkeyes actually came in at #19. Low points of the season included a non-conference loss to Charlotte, losses to Northwestern and Rutgers in conference play, and generally, the six game skid to open conference play that erased all the positive energy around the team.

Individual statistical leaders were Jordan Dickerson, DJ Newbill, and Ross Travis. Dickerson led the team in blocks. Newbill led the team in minutes, points, assists, steals, usage, and total win shares. Travis led the team in rebounds.

2. Offseason Exits

1516 penns tate offseason departurezzzz

During the offseason, Penn State lost a total of five players for a variety of reasons. These players were Kevin Montminy, DJ Newbill, Geno Thorpe, Ross Travis, and Alan Wisniewski. Four of these players graduated and one transferred. Of these five players, the most significant losses came from Newbill, Thorpe, and Travis. In fact, neither Montminy nor Wisniewski even played 20 total minutes last season.

Not all of these losses deserve a ton of attention, but the losses of Newbill, Thorpe, and Travis will have an enormous impact on Penn State this season. Not only did Newbill lead the team in virtually all the major offensive statistics, but Thorpe and Travis were also in the top five on the team in minutes, points, assists, and win shares. From a raw stats perspective, there is a lot leaving Penn State's roster.

To put it in perspective, just consider that of all the major traditional statistics, the only team leader returning is Jordan Dickerson, who led the team in blocks. Penn State is going to take a hit in scoring, rebounding, passing, defensive pressure, and generally, just putting players on the floor. In fact, Newbill averaged 37.1 minutes last season and both Thorpe and Travis were above 24 minutes per game. Those are some big contributions to replace.

The other thing to note here is that Newbill was far and away Penn State's best player last season. Just consider that Newbill scored more than double what any other player on the roster did. In fact, Newbill scored more than the next two leading scorers on Penn State's team combined. Just look at how he compared in advanced stats.

1415 penn state advanced statzzz

Needless to say, these losses are pretty significant. However, what makes the departures even more significant is that many of these players were also the backups at other positions as well. For instance, Thorpe took some minutes at shooting guard, Travis took some minutes at center, and Newbill took some minutes at point guard. Penn State is going to need to find three starter replacements and some bench options to emerge as well.

Of course, the good news is that these losses come from a team that went 4-14 in Big Ten play last year. Newbill was an outstanding player, but none of the others were exactly all-conference players to say the least. Thorpe still had some time to grow and develop, but one can make a strong argument that the departures outside of Newbill are relatively replaceable. Of course on the other hand, a team that went 4-14 in its conference is now losing its best player and two other major contributors. That's not usually a great sign for success.

3. New Additions

2015 247Sports Recruiting Team Rankings

This season, the Nittany Lions will be adding three new recruits and one transfer. The recruits are Josh Reaves, Mike Watkins, and Deividaz Zemgulis. Both Reaves and Watkins are rated as 4-star prospects and Zemgulis is a 3-star prospect according to 247Sports. Reaves is a shooting guard, Watkins is a power forward, and Zemgulis is a small forward.

The incoming recruit who has likely received the most attention is Reaves. Though he is actually rated slightly lower than Watkins on 247Sports' rankings, he is expected to make an early impact and fill a massive void left by DJ Newbill's departure. Reaves has a lot of athleticism, length, and can really play above the basket.

Both Watkins and Zemgulis are expected to make less of an impact in the upcoming season, but both are seen as players who can solidify the wing for Penn State. The good news for these two players is that due to the exit of players like Geno Thorpe and Ross Travis, there should be some opportunities to get minutes early and often, even if grabbing a starting role could be difficult.

Along with the recruiting additions, Penn State is adding one transfer this offseason in Terrence Samuel from UConn. Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, he will be ineligible this year due to NCAA transfer rules, but Samuel should be a valuable addition to the program on the wing in the coming seasons. Samuel will have to work on his outside shooting and become more efficient, but he is a decent rebounder for his size and did have some nice games over the course of the last two seasons.

The tricky thing to evaluate about Penn State's incoming additions is that there is a lot to like long-term, but it's hard to predict what exactly these players will produce this season. Reaves looks like a player who can instantly insert himself in the starting lineup, but Watkins looks like more of a prospect that will have to develop his upside and Zemgulis will likely be a bench option at least for the near future. Next year, it's not that improbable to see most of this group getting significant minutes, but can they in year one?

The potential is there, but until some of these prospects actually play in some college games, this is a group that looks like it could provide a starter or two, but will likely have most of its impact off the bench. In the future, this group could be special for the Nittany Lions, but expecting too much this year is probably unrealistic.

4. Team Strengths

There is certainly a lot of transition this offseason for Penn State, which makes the team's strengths more difficult to gauge, but there are some areas where the Nittany Lions should be strong. Most of these start on the defensive end, but there are some offensive aspects to like about Penn State as well.

Here's what I wrote in last year's team retrospective for Penn State:

As a team, the Nittany Lions were much stronger on the defensive end last season. They improved 40 spots from 2013-14 on KenPom and ultimately, finished as the #50 defense on KenPom and as the 7th most efficient defense in Big Ten play. Neither number looks all the impressive by itself, but for a team that finished at 18-16 with only one win over an NCAA Tournament team all season, that's pretty solid.

Penn State was certainly not an elite defensive unit by any means last season, but it was a tough and physical team that relied on Geno Thorpe to lock down the wing and Brandon Taylor to block shots inside. The backcourt wasn't necessarily as good defensively, but the frontcourt depth helped to mask some of those issues by playing well around the hoop and in the paint.

Of course, Thorpe and Ross Travis are gone, who were some of the better on-ball defenders on the team. However, Taylor is back on the wing and the frontcourt still has plenty of options in Jordan Dickerson, Donovan Jack, and Julian Moore. In fact, Jack and Moore actually had better blocking rates last year than Taylor, so this should still be a pretty good defensive team in the paint and around the rim.

The youth for Penn State will be a major concern on the defensive end of the floor, but with at least an experienced player in each position group, it may not be too big of a factor. Along with that, if the frontcourt can be solid, it should once again be able to catch some of those issues on the back end of defensive possessions.

Offensively, it's hard to argue that Penn State will be better. After all, DJ Newbill was the Big Ten's scoring leader and he was just one of a few losses. Still, there are some things to get excited about. To start, Penn State returns two of the team's better shooters last year in Shep Garner and Taylor. If some of the newcomers can make an impact on the perimeter, it's not hard to think the team could improve from just #206 nationally in 3PT percentage last year.

One other area where Penn State could improve is in transition. Losing a passer like Newbill will hurt here, but this should be a more talented and athletic team overall, which should lead to some easy buckets on the run. Getting Garner and Reaves to avoid turnovers in this area will be huge.

As mentioned, with so many new faces, it's hard to pin down what specifically will be the strengths of Penn State's team this season, but with the returns, this will likely still be a defensively led team. Along with that, if the newcomers can do well on the perimeter and in transition, the offense could make up for some of its offseason losses as well.

5. Team Weaknesses

Without a doubt, there are going to be some major red flags for Penn State this season. As detailed in the offseason losses section, Penn State is losing a lot this offseason. If the newcomers are not able to step in and make up for some of these departures, things could get pretty ugly.

To start, Penn State regressed massively on the offensive end last season and that was with players like DJ Newbill and Geno Thorpe. The regression wasn't even in an area or two either. This was an across the board step back that really reduced the impact of what was a pretty solid defensive team.

2014-15 Penn State Offensive Regression:

penn state offensive regressionzzz 1415

Now, Penn State is losing its leading scorer, assist leader, and its best outside shooter in Newbill. On top of that, other decent offensive players like Thorpe are also out the door. Some of the newcomers and some offseason development will hopefully make up for some of these offseason losses, but unless a few guys improve much more than expected, the offense could be pretty rough.

One offensive area that is going to be a major concern is the team's passing. Though Shep Garner has shown he's a decent passer, having a player like Newbill at shooting guard was huge as it put two really good passers in the backcourt. Plus, John Johnson, Thorpe, and Ross Travis were all in the top six of Penn State's roster in assists last season. Most believe this should be a team that spreads out offensive responsibilities instead of just relying on Newbill, but the Nittany Lions are first going to have to find some quality passers if the team is going to spread around the ball.

Finally, Penn State will also have to work on pressuring the ball defensively. The defense should be fine overall, but Newbill, Thorpe, and Travis were all in the top four in steals last season and Thorpe had the highest steal rate on the roster. Again, the defense looks fine on paper thanks to the frontcourt returners, but finding some players who can pressure the ball will be crucial.

It's hard to be too critical until the newcomers actually get on the court, but on paper, there could be some major issues for the Nittany Lions offensively next season. Slotting in recruits based on scouting rankings is easy enough, but actually seeing those prospects be productive to fill in for players like Newbill is another thing. Perhaps the offense develops over the season, but it could be a work in progress all year.

6. Top Player

Last season, there really wasn't much debating that DJ Newbill was the team's best player. He was easily the most proven player on the roster entering the season and ultimately, was the only player on the team to play at an all-conference type of level. There were a few other players on the team like Shep Garner that played well over the course of the season, but no Nittany Lion came even close to Newbill in 2014-15.

1415 penn state kenpom mvps

Now, without Newbill, there is no player that is head and shoulders above the rest of the roster. The leading statistical returner is Shep Garner, but many believe that he will not be able to elevate himself enough to be the team's top player. Other returners with some potential include Julian Moore and Brandon Taylor, but neither has really shown much to demand conversation in this area.

Of course, there are also some newcomers that could warrant discussion here. Both Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins were rated as 4-star prospects by 247Sports and appear to be players that will see some serious time this season. Reaves is going to have plenty of opportunities due to his position and Watkins has a lot of potential, but both also have the freshman caveat. After all, neither player has seen a minute of college action yet.

All told, it's hard not to lean toward Garner as the best player on the roster. There's a chance that Moore, Reaves, or Watkins can have big roles this season, but Garner was quietly one of the most productive players for Penn State and could see his role expand further this year. After all, Garner was only third in field goal attempts and had a lower usage rate than three other Nittany Lions while on the floor. It's unlikely Penn State will have a top contributor like the team had in Newbill last year, but Garner could be a good one.

7. 2015-16 Schedule Breakdown

  • 11/14 - VMI
  • 11/17 - DePaul
  • 11/20 - at Duquesne
  • 11/24 - Radford
  • 11/28 - Bucknell
  • 12/2 - at Boston College
  • 12/5 - Eastern Michigan
  • 12/8 - at George Washington
  • 12/10 - Canisius
  • 12/12 - Louisiana-Monroe
  • 12/19 - at Drexel
  • 12/22 - vs Colorado (Las Vegas, Nevada)
  • 12/23 - vs Kent State/SMU (Las Vegas, Nevada)
  • 12/20 - at Maryland
  • 1/2 - at Michigan
  • 1/5 - Minnesota
  • 1/10 - Michigan State
  • 1/13 - at Purdue
  • 1/16 - at Northwestern
  • 1/21 - Wisconsin
  • 1/25 - at Ohio State
  • 1/30 - vs Michigan (New York City, New York)
  • 2/3 - at Iowa
  • 2/6 - Indiana
  • 2/13 - at Nebraska
  • 2/17 - Iowa
  • 2/20 - at Rutgers
  • 2/25 - Nebraska
  • 2/28 - at Michigan State
  • 3/3 - Northwestern
  • 3/6 - Illinois

This isn't a schedule that is going to get Penn State fans excited since it has no marquee non-conference games at home, but it is one that seems reasonable for where Penn State is coming into the year. Even with an optimistic outlook, this is probably not a team that will be in top 25 contention or at the top of the Big Ten. As such, it's important for Penn State to create a manageable non-conference schedule and that's exactly what is here.

The most significant non-conference games for Penn State are the road games at Boston College and George Washington and the trip to Las Vegas where the Nittany Lions will face Colorado and either Kent State or SMU. It's very tough to imagine Penn State running the table in these games - especially if the team does end up facing SMU in Las Vegas - but it does look like a manageable slate.

This schedule looks manageable because none of the opponents outside of SMU look like nationally competitive teams. Boston College hasn't topped 16 wins in the last four seasons, Kent State hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 2008, and George Washington looks to be a bubble team on paper. Colorado looks set for a rebound, but even if things go well for the Buffaloes, it's probably still around the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Of course, this is still probably an optimistic outlook for the non-conference slate. After all, Penn State did have just an 18-16 record last season and is set to lose several key players. Even if the Nittany Lions hit the ground running, it's hard to imagine the team matching the 12-1 non-conference performance last season. Nonetheless, with winnable games and a bit of luck, it's not that hard to imagine just a few losses entering Big Ten play.

However, things get much trickier in Big Ten play. Just look at the first half of conference play for the Nittany Lions. Not only does the team face five teams that made last year's NCAA Tournament, but it also faces what should be an improved Michigan team twice and a tricky Northwestern squad on the road. Every matchup and opponent is unique, but from a general view, it's not unreasonable to think Penn State wins just two of its first nine Big Ten games.

Of course, the second half of Big Ten play does get more manageable. Still, even then, the schedule remains difficult. Penn State has four games against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season, one against an Illinois team that made the postseason last year, and two additional road games. Penn State will probably do better down the stretch than it does to start Big Ten play given the schedule, but it's probably going to be far from perfect.

Given the schedule difficulties, this looks like a schedule that should allow Penn State to win somewhere between two to seven conference games. Trying to predict when and where upsets might happen is incredibly difficult, but Penn State is going to need a good hunk of upsets to hit the top end of that projection. Realistically, a three or four win conference performance is probably the most likely outcome.

Overall, this is a pretty reasonable schedule given where Penn State is coming into the year. There are going to be a lot of tough games, but with a lot of winnable matchups in non-conference play and a lighter second half of conference play, there is some room for success. Still, it will be a tough go around for the Nittany Lions.

8. Projected Startling Lineup

  • PG: Shep Garner (So.) - 95%

  • SG: Josh Reaves (Fr.) - 80%

  • SF: Brandon Taylor (Sr.) - 70%

  • PF: Mike Watkins (Fr.) - 65%

  • C: Jordan Dickerson (Sr.) - 55%

(Percentage likelihood of starting at season tip-off.)

The backcourt could be set to be the strongest area in the lineup for the Nittany Lions this season. To start, the return of Shep Garner will be huge for Penn State this season. By most measures, he is the team's best returning player and was just a true freshman last season. It's not hard to imagine him taking the next step and becoming a legitimate star heading into next year.

Things are more uncertain outside of Garner, but the addition of 4-star Josh Reaves should help with some of those concerns. He will likely start at shooting guard not only because he is a prospect with a lot of upside, but also because there isn't a whole lot of depth in the backcourt for Penn State. Devin Foster and Isaiah Washington should both be depth options, but they have shown little, if anything, on the court at this point.

Unlike the backcourt, the wing group looks like it's going to be much more interesting to see sort out. The team returns a decent, but not great player in Brandon Taylor, adds a really nice but raw prospect in Mike Watkins, and has players with upside in Payton Banks and Deividas Zemgulis. There's a ton of potential on the wing for Penn State long-term, but not a lot of certainty for this season.

Perhaps the biggest question about the wing group will be whether Penn State opts to play small or big next season. The Nittany Lions really do have the pieces to do either, but the team should have more upside if it can play a smaller lineup that puts Watkins on the floor. The question will be whether Watkins is good enough to hold down a starting spot and whether players like Banks and Zemgulis are good enough off the bench to make a small lineup feasible. At this point, my guess is that it will happen, but it will be a huge storyline for Penn State's season.

Finally, the frontcourt is a relatively known commodity at this point for Penn State. Fans should expect to see Jordan Dickerson take the primary role with Donovan Jack and Julian Moore taking reserve duty. This should be a serviceable position group, but likely the one with the smallest upside. The only potential wildcard is Moore, who could develop into a solid big man. There should be enough depth for the frontcourt to play big, but if that happens, it's probably not a good sign for Penn State this season.

The Nittany Lions actually have plenty of good options for the team's starting lineup next season, which is a good sign considering the team went 18-16 last year and lost two of its best players. The wing group is going to be a major question mark and the backcourt depth looks to be an issue, but overall, there's a solid chance that Penn State can put a decent lineup on the floor this season.

9. Team Perspective From Chad Markulics of Black Shoe Diaries

"Penn State won't be anything more than a blip on the radar of casual college hoops fans this year, because they are probably going to stink. That's not an earth-shattering statement, because Penn State basketball has stunk for nearly 100 years. But the stench (metaphorical, I hope for the student section's sake) this year will be tinged with the slight hint of optimism. Why? Because Pat Chambers is building something real in State College.

This isn't your typical rose-tinted glasses optimism either. Chambers is objectively bringing in talent at a rate previously unseen in the history of Penn State basketball. Two of this years' freshman crop, the 6'8" Mike Watkins and Oak Hill alum Josh Reaves, are objectively top-100 caliber players. Chambers also has, at least as of early October, an objectively top-25 ranked group in the class of 2016 committed to play for him. Talent has been the biggest problem for the program, and Chambers is fixing that problem.

So what about this year? It should be fine. If anybody is going to take the mantle from D.J. Newbill it's Shep Garner. Garner is coming off the best freshman season in recent school history, but questions remain as to whether or not he's the alpha dog that Newbill, Tim Frazier or Talor Battle were. The frontcourt is loaded with players who can defend, to be sure, but aside from the 6'6" senior Brandon Taylor it's hard to see a ton of offense coming from the bigs.

In fact, it's hard to predict much about this incarnation of Penn State basketball. Who's going to score the ball? Garner and Taylor, and maybe [intentionally mumbles]. How many teams are they clearly better than? Rutgers and uhh...well, definitely Rutgers. Probably. But it's this uncertainty that will keep fans at least somewhat interested (or morbidly curious). They won't win a lot of games in conference play and they might not be very entertaining, but they will provide a glimpse towards a brighter future in Happy Valley." - Chad Markulics.

10. Overall Season Outlook

This is a unique season for the Penn State program. Signs point to a program that is trending up, but few signs are there that this will be the season where things click. Still, with the underwhelming results on the court during head coach Patrick Chambers' tenure, fans are going to want to see some signs of progress. Due to these factors, it might be harder to set expectations for Penn State than any other team in the conference.

Just start with Penn State's lineup. The Nittany Lions could not only start three underclassmen this season, but also use four underclassmen as the team's primary bench options. That's an outstanding sign for long-term success, but is also a major red flag for this season. After all, relying on a bunch of players who have either never seen the floor at the college level or have limited experience is typically not a confidence booster. Common sense implies that it's going to lead to a great lineup at some point, but the question will just be whether that will happen this year.

Unfortunately, given the depth in the Big Ten and the youth concerns for Penn State, it's hard to realistically think this will be the year for Penn State. Still though, with players like Shep Garner and incoming freshmen like Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins, this should be an exciting team that is competitive on most nights. If this team can finish similar to where it did last year, that should probably be considered progress with the offseason departures.

There's no telling exactly how things will turn out long-term for Penn State, but it looks like that this season could be the one that starts the upward trend in State College. There's a lot of talent on this team, but with the inexperience and depth issues, it will likely be a work in progress this season.

Big Ten Prediction: 13th Place