The 2015 campaign was a rough one for Penn State. Despite some terrific play from star shooting guard D.J. Newbill, the team won just four Big Ten games and did not get enough consistent production from its role players to push it over the top against the conference's best teams. Still, there was hope in Happy Valley after the Lions won their first two Big Ten Conference Tournament games against Nebraska and Iowa. Even after a loss to Purdue in the bracket's quarterfinals, Penn State finally looked like a team that could compete at a high level in every game.
It's going to be tough to continue that momentum into 2016 with D.J. Newbill graduating and Geno Thorpe leaving the program for personal reasons. Let's start with Newbill's contributions.
Penn State lost 14 conference games in 2015, but a lot of those results were still in doubt late into the second half. That's thanks to Newbill's efforts. The scoring and leadership he provided in each game kept the Lions' season from being completely unwatchable. The way he battled everyday despite never coming close to an NCAA Tournament made Penn State fans like myself swoon. Not only could Newbill drive to the hoop, but he improved his three-point shooting to force opponents to guard him 20 feet from the hoop. The final touch in making Newbill the Big Ten's leading scorer at 20.7 points per game was a smooth, step-back 15-foot jumper that became almost automatic late in the campaign.
How will Penn State win without Newbill? They won't do a lot of that in 2016, but incoming freshman Josh Reaves has the chance to be the next great Penn State guard if his prospect hype is even close to being on point. I'm looking forward to Reaves earning early playing time and showing off his skills in November.
Thorpe wasn't known by Big Ten fans across the country like Newbill was last year, but he was perhaps more important to Penn State's future. As a sophomore in 2015, Thorpe averaged 8.7 points per game and played excellent on-ball defense, which allowed head coach Pat Chambers to give Newbill a break on one side of the floor. On offense, Thorpe showed a knack for getting to the line and was a clutch free throw shooter. He also started to develop the three-point shooting that was practically nonexistent during his freshman season.
With another year of development, there was hope that Thorpe could step into the leadership and scoring void left by Newbill, but with the rising junior leaving the program, Penn State fans will have to wait for Reaves or someone else to become the man.
Travis was a frustrating player to watch throughout his career, as he failed to develop a consistent offensive game, but the defense and rebounding he provided the Lions were invaluable. You certainly couldn't fault Travis for not trying, but it often appeared like he could use some extra work on his jump shot and free throw shooting. The graduating senior's absence on defense will be sorely missed by this year's team, but on offense there will be more room for players like Reaves and freshman big man Mike Watkins to thrive. If Watkins can equal Travis's impact on defense while flashing some offensive potential, he'll create a lot of excitement about the future of the program.
Even considering the departure of Newbill, the end of last year's Nittany Lion campaign gave a lot of hope leading into 2016. The news of Thorpe leaving, on the other hand, was a real sucker punch to fans who were excited about 2016. Without the possibility of Thorpe blossoming in Happy Valley, it looks like 2016 will be another year of program building for Chambers and company. The good news is that with so much playing time available, we should know a lot about the exciting freshman class sooner rather than later.