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How Far Did DJ Newbill Carry The Penn State Nittany Lions In 2014-15?

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A look back at the 2014-15 season for the Nittany Lions through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations for the season.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 BTPowerhouse Recapitulation Series will look back at the season of each Big Ten team through a 10 point analysis designed to reveal what went right, what went wrong, and whether the team met expectations in 2014-15.  The series will be released during late April and early May in reverse order of conference standings, meaning the last place team will be reviewed first and the Big Ten champions will be reviewed last.

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The 2014-15 season was an underwhelming one for Penn State.  Despite hopes that star guard DJ Newbill could lead a decent, but not great roster to the postseason, the Nittany Lions were unable to build off an exciting non-conference performance in Big Ten play.  Penn State had their bright moments, but unfortunately, there were just not enough of them for the team to make much of their 2014-15 campaign.

Let's look back at it it in its entirety.

1. Preseason Expectations

Before the season began, it's safe to say that expectations were not all that high for Penn State.  Though DJ Newbill was set to return to the lineup, the team lacked other proven options and star guard Tim Frazier was leaving due to graduation.  In my Big Ten preview, I had Penn State slated to finish #13 in the Big Ten.  Though I believed they had some pieces, I just didn't see enough for the team to really be a Big Ten contender.

Here was my preseason storyline for Penn State:

The biggest storyline for Penn State's team this season is how they plan to replace do it all point guard Tim Frazier.  Over his career, Frazier made a tremendous impact for the Nittany Lions and was influential in DJ Newbill's breakout last season.  There are potential answers here in transfer Devin Foster and incoming freshman Shep Garner, but there will likely be growing pains at the point as well.  Along with replacing Frazier, this is also considered to be a very significant season for Pat Chambers.  This will be the fourth year under Chambers and the Nittany Lions have failed to make the NCAA Tournament or the NIT.  Chambers may not be the "hot seat" just yet, but this certainly could be a year that tells a lot about Chamber's tenure.

Outside of my projection, the Big Ten writers also saw Penn State as a bottom-tier Big Ten team.  In their preseason poll, they put the Nittany Lions at #12 in the conference ahead of just Northwestern and Rutgers.  Penn State had some firepower and some interesting incoming prospects, but even if they were able to find a productive newcomer, there just did not seem to be enough meat on the bone outside of Newbill to achieve anything substantial.

2. Non-Conference Play

Considering that Penn State was largely viewed as a team that would finish near the bottom of the conference, there were not high expectations for the team in their non-conference schedule either.  However, considering that their biggest challenges on paper appeared to be at home against Akron, George Washington, and Virginia Tech, things looked relatively manageable for the Nittany Lions.  It was highly likely that Penn State would enter conference play without a strong win simply due to their weak schedule, but there was also an opportunity to take care of business at home and score a few Top 100 KenPom wins, which would be good for a team struggling to get back into national relevance.  Here is how things ended up playing out.

Penn State 2014-15 Non-Conference:
  • Win (1-0): Morgan St., 61-48
  • Win (2-0): Fordham, 73-54
  • Loss (2-1): Charlotte, 106-97 2OT
  • Win (3-1): Cornell, 72-71
  • Win (4-1): USC, 63-61
  • Win (5-1):Akron, 78-72
  • Win (6-1): Bucknell, 88-80
  • Win (7-1):Virginia Tech, 61-58
  • Win (8-1): Marshall, 73-69
  • Win (9-1): Duquesne, 64-62
  • Win (10-1): George Washington, 64-51
  • Win (11-1): Drexel, 73-68
  • Win (12-1): Dartmouth, 69-49
There's no doubt that Penn State had one of the weaker non-conference schedules in the Big Ten, but going 12-1 to start the season was still major progress for a team that entered conference play with at least 5 losses in each of its previous 5 seasons.  To add in that Penn State did not lose a single non-conference game in regulation, won twice on the road, and beat two Top 100 KenPom teams, it's really a remarkable feat considering how Penn State had performed in similar settings in recent years.  The success was even good enough to earn the Nittany Lions some Top 25 votes heading into Big Ten play.

However, despite this improvement, there were still some red flags for Penn State.  The 12-1 record looked great on paper, but their 6-1 record in games decided by 5 points or less raised plenty of eyebrows as the Nittany Lions rolled into Big Ten play.  Plus, considering that Penn State faced just two Top 100 KenPom teams with both games coming at home raised even more questions about the 12-1 record.  There was little doubt that Penn State's non-conference performance was a success for a team that had struggled in recent seasons, but there was no denying that it was also one of the softer one loss records in the country.

3. Conference Play

Entering Big Ten play, there were two schools of thought on Penn State.  The first group believed that the Nittany Lions, albeit not a perfect team, had substantially improved and would build off their 12-1 record against Big Ten teams.  They certainly were not on the same playing field as teams like Wisconsin, but they had enough consistency to at least improve from the last season.

The other school viewed Penn State's 12-1 record as a mirage that was built on close wins against mediocre and bad teams.  Even if the the Nittany Lions had improved, it was by much less than their 12-1 record indicated.  Nonetheless, Penn State would have their opportunity to prove themselves in Big Ten play.  Here is how they performed.

Penn State 2014-15 Big Ten Play:
  • Loss (0-1): Wisconsin, 89-72
  • Loss (0-2): Rutgers, 50-46
  • Loss (0-3): Michigan, 73-64
  • Loss (0-4): Indiana, 76-73
  • Loss (0-5): Purdue, 84-77
  • Loss (0-6): Michigan State, 66-60
  • Win (1-6): Rutgers, 79-51
  • Win (2-6): Minnesota, 63-58
  • Loss (2-7): Illinois, 60-58
  • Loss (2-8): Maryland, 64-58
  • Win (3-8): Nebraska, 56-43
  • Loss (3-9): Ohio State, 75-55
  • Loss (3-10): Maryland, 76-73
  • Loss (3-11): Wisconsin, 55-47
  • Loss (3-12): Northwestern, 60-39
  • Loss (3-13): Iowa, 81-77
  • Loss (3-14): Ohio State, 77-67
  • Win (4-14): Minnesota, 79-76
Needless to say, one school of thought definitely came out on top following Penn State's performance in Big Ten play.  After coming into Big Ten play at 12-1 and with a 10 game winning streak, the Nittany Lions opened at 0-6 in Big Ten play and fell to 12-7 overall.  It was a horrid start that featured two losses at home and a road loss to a dreadful Rutgers team.

In less than a month, Penn State went from a team receiving Top 25 votes to an 0-6 conference team.  It's rare you see a team exposed that badly in just a month, but the hammer came down hard on Penn State.  Even in KenPom ratings - which are generally less prone to quick changes - Penn State dropped 30 spots from #92 to #122.  It was a tough drop for a team that many thought might even be in NCAA Tournament contention.

The unfortunate thing for Penn State was that once they started 0-6 in Big Ten play, their NCAA Tournament hopes were largely dead.  Even if they were able to turn things around, they were so far behind the eight ball, that it would take a miraculous comeback to even get on the bubble.  Their 12 non-conference wins certainly helped their resume, but remember, with arguably just two quality wins there, their resume was not all that great even before their 6 losses to open Big Ten play.  When the losses were added in, their resume was pretty downright bad.

Of course, Penn State did lead a short resurgence.  They were able to win 3 of the 5 games following their six game losing streak including at home against what appeared to be an underwhelming, but decent Minnesota team. Unfortunately, their fate was finally sealed when they lost another 6 games in a row including to Northwestern on the road.  The second six game losing streak was terrible on paper, but Penn State really didn't perform that badly considering that five of the games were against NCAA Tournament teams and four of the losses were by 10 points or less.  Still though, the losses were the final nails to take what was a bright start and reduce it to a 3-14 Big Ten record.  Any hope for a successful season would have to come in the Big Ten Tournament.

Penn State did close regular season play with a road win against Minnesota, but by that point, neither team was playing for much outside of Big Ten Tournament seeding.  The Nittany Lions had a great deal of hope before starting Big Ten play, but ultimately, the team was exposed as a bottom Big Ten team.

4. Postseason Play

Following Penn State's 4-14 performance in Big Ten play, the Nittany Lions were locked out of an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and only had fringe hopes for an NIT bid.  The only chance that Penn State had for a non-CBI postseason was to reel off some wins in the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.  Unfortunately, due to Penn State's underwhelming Big Ten record, it would be an uphill battle from the #13 seed and require five straight wins to grab the Big Ten Tournament title.  Here is how things went for Penn State:

Penn State 2014-15 Postseason Play:
  • Win (1st Round Big Ten Tourney), Nebraska, 68-65
  • Win (2nd Round Big Ten Tourney), Iowa, 67-58
  • Loss (Quarterfinals Big Ten Tourney), Purdue, 64-59

For most, the 1st Round game between Nebraska and Penn State was a "pick 'em" and KenPom gave the Nittany Lions roughly a 60% chance to come out on top before the opening tip. Thanks to a big time performance from DJ Newbill, the team was able to move on and face Iowa.  This is when most figured the run would end.  The Hawkeyes were an NCAA Tournament team and had beaten Penn State just a few weeks earlier.

However, thanks to some really solid play, Penn State was able to pull off the upset and knock off Iowa.  Not only was this the best win of the season for Penn State according to KenPom, but it was also the only win that the Nittany Lions had over an NCAA Tournament team all season long.  Penn State had certainly come close on a few occasions earlier in the year (including in a game against Iowa), but this was the only time that they were actually able to pull it off.  To grab the defining win of the season in March in a game where Penn State was largely in control over the final 10 minutes made it all the sweeter.

Even after the win over Iowa, few thought that Penn State could actually make it to the title game, but with a matchup against a Purdue team that many believed might be overseeded, anything was possible.  Unfortunately for Penn State, their luck ran out against the Boilermakers and they ended their season at 18-16 overall.

Some believed that Penn State might have enough to slide into an NIT bid, but ultimately, they were not selected and declined to participate in the CBI, meaning that their season would end in Chicago.  It was a season of ups and downs, but was a two win improvement from the previous season.

5. Strengths

Penn State was certainly not a great team last season, but they still had a few nice pieces to their team that allowed them to get to 18-16 overall and play competitively with most Big Ten teams.

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 also #75 in effective height last season and used it to its advantage.  They finished #97 in blocking rate last year and were led in that category by Jordan Dickerson, who finished 2nd in the Big Ten in blocking rate over the course of the season, only behind Purdue's AJ Hammons.  Brandon Taylor also finished at #15 in the Big Ten in blocking rate, making the Nittany Lions just one of three teams in the conference to have 2 of the top 15 in the category with the other two teams (MSU and OSU) both making the NCAA Tournament.

The ability to guard the rim was also a key reason why the Nittany Lions held opponents to just a 43.6% from inside the arc defensively last season, which was good enough for #31 nationally and 8th in the conference during Big Ten play (5 of top 7 made NCAA Tournament).  Again, these aren't elite numbers, but for a team that went 18-16 without a lot of quality wins, these are pretty solid numbers.  It was also a big piece in the team's upset against Iowa, where the Hawkeyes shot just 28.6% from 2PT range.

Though a team that went 4-14 in conference play does not usually have a lot of strengths, the defensive end really was a spot where Penn State improved and could be an area where the team looks to take another step forward going into next season.

6. Weaknesses

Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, their improvements defensively were largely unnoticed due to the team's significant regression on the offensive end.  Fans knew that overcoming the loss of star point guard Tim Frazier would be a challenge, but it definitely proved to be more significant than many anticipated.  Just take a look at how the numbers compared between 2013-14 and 2014-15.

2014-15 Penn State Offensive Regression:

regress psu

Of the 10 statistical categories listed above, Penn State regressed in eight of them.  No stat is perfect and certainly gauging an offense by something like 3PT% alone is flawed, but when you look at all of those numbers collectively, it's pretty easy to say Penn State took a major step back offensively.  Just like at the team's offensive rating on KenPom, where they dropped 70 spots.  Considering that the Nittany Lions were already at #101 the year before, dropping an additional 70 spots is massive.

So what caused this massive regression?  There are two numbers that pop out on Penn State's profile this season that should come as no surprise to Nittany Lions fans.  From 2013-14 to 2014-15, Penn State dropped from #11 to #39 in turnover rate and went from #284 to #342 in assists per field goal made.  Though DJ Newbill made plenty of plays, the drop-off in passing and rise in turnovers was very detrimental to the Nittany Lions.

The emergence of Shep Garner certainly helped to minimize these struggles.  Garner had a 16.7% assist rate, which was good enough for 28th in the Big Ten of those that played 40% of minutes, but it was still limited.  Penn State had just three players who had at least a 10.0% assist rate or higher who played at least 40% of the team's minutes.  This was tied with Maryland, Rutgers, and Wisconsin for 11th in the Big Ten.  When you consider that Maryland and Wisconsin both narrowly had a 4th player miss the 10.0% cut, that Rutgers had an abysmal offense, and the 14th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes in this category had two players in the Top 5, it's pretty clear that Penn State did not have a lot of quality passers on the team last season.

Penn State would probably have not been a great team even if they could have added another quality passer to their lineup, but if they could have prevented just some of their massive offensive regression, it's not unlikely that this team would have been at least decent last season.

7. Top Player

This could very well be the easiest section to write in the entire 2015 Big Ten Recapitulation Series.  Penn State had their bright moments and their struggles in 2014-15, but there is little doubt that one player defined much of the season for the Nittany Lions and that player is DJ Newbill.  Coming into the season, the question was simply whether Newbill would have enough to work with to make Penn State a contender.  Of course, the team was never able to take off around Newbill, but he put together one of the finer seasons in Penn State history.

But still, let's see how he compares to the roster.

Penn State 2014-15 Stat Leaders
  • Minutes - DJ Newbill
  • Field Goal Attempts - DJ Newbill
  • Points - DJ Newbill
  • Rebounds - Ross Travis
  • Assists - DJ Newbill
  • Blocks - Jordan Dickerson
  • Steals - DJ Newbill

Newbill also compares really well to Penn State's team in the advanced stats as well.

psu advanced statz

Of course, advanced numbers may not necessarily be a perfect reflection compared to how a player performs in big games and whether he can push them over the top.  To help assist in this, KenPom does an analysis of an MVP in each game and awards it to the best player on the winning team.  Here is how Penn State stacked up.

psu kenpom mvvvp

No matter how you break things down, Newbill comes out on top.  Even when you just look at the Big Ten awards, Newbill's play is on another level from any other player on Penn State's roster.  Penn State had just one player make the cut for the Big Ten 2014-15 awards list and that was DJ Newbill on the All-Big Ten 2nd team.  No other Nittany Lion made the cut for any listing.  Not Honorable Mention, not Freshmen Team, and not even the Defensive Team.  The awards are not a perfect gauge, but they certainly tell a strong story here.

Newbill had a fantastic season and was clearly a significant jump ahead of anyone else on the roster.  Penn State may never have been a great team when he was on the roster, but it's certainly disappointing to know that this was Newbill's last year in the Big Ten.

8. Sixth Man

The offense was a question mark for the Nittany Lions, but the bench was another area that could have used some improvement.  Over the course of the season, Penn State ended up being ranked #212 in bench minutes.  For successful teams, this is not necessarily a concerning statistic.  In fact, Wisconsin was ranked #344 last season in this metric and they won the Big Ten and made the title game.  Bench minutes do not necessarily equate with successful teams, but for a team that went 4-14 in Big Ten play, a more productive bench could have gone a long way in notching off a few more wins and possibly shaking up the starting lineup.

Last season, Penn State's most started lineup was Shep Garner, DJ Newbill, Brandon Taylor, Ross Travis, and Jordan Dickerson.  That leaves the biggest bench contributors as Payton Banks, Devin Foster, Donovan Jack, John Johnson, Julian Moore, and Geno Thorpe.  This comparison is a bit flawed because Thorpe was starting late in the year, but this comparison is done by total starts.  Here is how they broke down in traditional stats.

Penn State 2014-15 Bench Leaders
  • Minutes - Geno Thorpe
  • Field Goal Attempts - Geno Thorpe
  • Points - Geno Thorpe
  • Rebounds - Donovan Jack
  • Assists - Geno Thorpe
  • Steals - Geno Thorpe

Thorpe also did really well in the advanced stats comparison.

psu bench advanced

Along with these metrics and the general statistics, Thorpe was also the only bench player on Penn State's roster to earn a KenPom game MVP this season.  In fact, Thorpe earned a total of three game MVPs during 2014-15.  Again, this comparison is a bit flawed because Thorpe was playing nearly 30 minutes a game by the end of the season, but his growth was one of the brighter spots on the team and something that allowed the Nittany Lions to become more competitive in Big Ten play.

Thorpe jointed the team during the 2013-14 season, but really didn't play all that much in his first go around.  In fact, he failed to play 10 minutes in six of his first eight games and had 11 games where he failed to played less than 10 minutes even after Big Ten season started.  He did have a few nice games toward the end of the year including 10 points in a CBI game, but it was certainly not the most productive year.

On the contrary, during this season, Thorpe played at least 10 minutes in every game this season and only had two games where he played less than 15 minutes and both were due to foul trouble.  Here are some of his team rankings.

Geno Thorpe Rankings On 2014-15 Penn State's Roster:
  • 2nd in scoring during conference play
  • 3rd in minutes, rebounds, and steals during conference play
  • 3rd in total scoring and win shares
  • 4th in PER and usage

Despite coming off an underwhelming debut season in 2013-14, Thorpe really recovered to put together a solid and productive 2014-15 season.  Penn State was not a great team last season, but Thorpe was a guy that did develop and was a decent player by the end of the season.

9. Top Storylines

The Nittany Lions had their shares of highs and lows during the 2014-15 season and as such, had a few big storylines over the course of the season.  Of these storylines, the two that seemed to rise to the top was the team's hot start and collapse in Big Ten play and the impeccable play of DJ Newbill.

The first storyline is an intriguing one.  Penn State was considered to be one of the hottest teams in the country and certainly the conference as they entered Big Ten play.  Remember, Penn State started 12-1 this season and were receiving Top 25 voters despite finishing tied for 12th with Northwestern during the 2013-14 season.  It was an enticing topic that generated plenty of discussion.

Of course, the fun ended abruptly for Penn State.  Sure, the 12-1 record was built against many underwhelming opponents, but it was still 12-1.  The six straight losses to start Big Ten play really took all the air out of what was starting to look like a fun season in State College.  There were certainly naysayers before the losing streak, but there was also plenty of optimism and enthusiasm.  Perhaps if Penn State had just been able to go 1-5 or 2-4 things would have been different, but the 0-6 had many writing off Penn State by mid-January.  It became a depressing storyline for Penn State fans, but one that shows how cruel college basketball can be when things start to go wrong.

Of course, there was at least one positive storyline this season for Penn State.  For a school that has just one Final Four appearance in its history and has never had an All-American, being able to have a player like DJ Newbill had to be a treat for fans.  Not only did he lead the Big Ten in scoring in 2014-15, but he also finished #4 in career scoring at Penn State despite playing just three years with the team and holds the records for the #2 and #7 highest scoring seasons in Nittany Lions history.

Newbill may not have had the most decorated career at Penn State or even gotten to participate in the NCAA Tournament, but there is little doubt that as fans look back, he will go down as one of the greatest players in history of Penn State basketball.

chambers

10. Final Verdict

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 tricky part is how much you can criticize a team for largely staying the same the next season.  Penn State had low expectations coming into 2014-15, got hot early, collapsed, and pretty much finished right where they finished the year before.  Avoiding regression should be good enough to let them avoid the lowest of grades, but when a team finishes 4-14 in conference play and 13th in the standings, it's hard to put too bright of a spin on things.

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.

Season Grade: D+