The 2015-’16 season will be another challenging one for Penn State. Coming off a an 18-16 campaign that included a dismal 4-14 mark in conference play, the Nittany Lions need to show more improvement and consistency in year five of the Pat Chambers era.
Still, there are plenty of question marks that Penn State will need to answer. With leading scorer D.J. Newbill having departed and a number of young players set to have bigger roles, it’s unclear exactly what the Nittany Lions will look like next season.
While there’s a number of questions the team needs to answer, let’s take a look at three of the biggest.
Who’s the new go-to guy?
Last season, there was never any doubt who would have the ball in a critical spot for the Nittany Lions. Not only did Newbill lead the Big Ten in scoring (20.7 points per game), he accounted for 31 percent of the Lions’ total points and was the team’s leading scorer in 29 of 34 games. While Penn State will no doubt be more balanced offensively in 2015-’16, it still needs to find a player capable of scoring the key baskets.
Of the Nittany Lions current crop of players, the two with the best chance of taking that responsibility are Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner. Although neither guy was particularly consistent last season, both have the ability to be quality scorers when their shot is falling. A senior forward, Taylor has been touted as a 3-point threat his entire career, yet he shot just 33.5 percent from behind the arc last season. He scored in double-digits 16 times, but eight of those efforts came in non-conference play. Garner had similar struggles during his freshman season. After averaging 12.6 points his first five games, the 6'1" point guard seemed to be on a roller coaster the rest of the season, scoring double-digits 10 more times but also making just two shots or less from the field in 13 other contests.
It remains to be seen how high a ceiling both of them have, but expect the pair to be the team’s leading scorers in 2015-'16. Garner’s shortcomings last season were typical for a freshman, and the experience he gained was extremely beneficial for his confidence. Taylor on the other hand, will hopefully benefit from the expected increase in his touches. The Lions can’t afford for them to shoot under 40 percent like year, but both should easily average more than 10 points per game. Whether they can score in the clutch however, is still to be determined.
How will the team deal with the loss of Geno Thorpe?
A starter for Penn State down the stretch last season, Thorpe dealt the program a blow when he transferred to South Florida in June. While his stats (8.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.3 assists) weren’t eye-popping, the 6-foot-3 guard was arguably the team’s best defender, and a guy who seemed to inject the Nittany Lions with energy every time he stepped on the court. Now that he’s a gone, Penn State has a large hole to fill in its backcourt next to Garner.
Of the three other guards on the roster (Devin Foster, Isaiah Washington, Josh Reaves), the only one who looks like a true two is Reaves, one of the team’s three new freshmen. Chambers may not have been originally planning to insert the four-star recruit as a starter, but he might have to now because of his lack of options. Still, Reaves can be a more polished version of Thorpe if he lives up to his potential. At 6'4" and 190 pounds, the Virginia native has solid size and enough athleticism to be a defender/energy guy right off the bat before taking on a larger role down the line.
If Chambers wants to be more creative, he could try playing Garner and Foster together or even give 6'6" sophomore Payton Banks time at the two. The Nittany Lions will obviously use numerous lineup combinations, but don’t be surprised if Reaves has a larger role partially thanks to Thorpe’s departure.
Will any big men solidify the frontcourt?
While their options at guard are a little slim, the Nittany Lions will have plenty of depth in the frontcourt next season. With seniors Taylor, Donovon Jack and Jordan Dickerson being joined by sophomore Julian Moore and new freshman Mike Watkins, Chambers clearly has options. What isn’t clear is which of them can be consistent producers in conference play. We already covered Taylor, but Jack and Dickerson are two other veterans who have shown flashes but not on a regular basis.
At 7’1", Dickerson is a very good rim protector who still hasn’t proven he can be a force in the post or on the boards, averaging just 2.6 points and 3.3 rebounds last season. And while Jack is a tough player who can shoot a little, his playing time dipped in 2014-’15 as he continued to struggle with foul trouble. Add in the 6’10" Moore and the team’s top recruit Watkins to that mix and there’s a lot of untapped potential for Chambers to try and sort out.
Jack and Dickerson will likely start at the four and five initially, but minutes between the group will fluctuate as Chambers looks for the combinations that work best. The one with the most potential is Watkins, but its obviously unclear if he’ll be ready to be an impact player right away.
That makes this group an even bigger unknown, and it’s doubtful Penn State can survive a Big Ten schedule if it’s not getting consistent production from its big men. If nobody makes any significant strides, the Lions could be in trouble.