The non-conference schedule can sometimes be a bit of an experiment for teams. A time to see what lineups work, what young players are ready for Division I basketball and who your go-to guys are. That doesn’t mean teams don’t take these games seriously, but that they can use them to make sure they’re ready for conference play.
This was certainly true for Penn State this season, as the Nittany Lions entered 2015-’16 with plenty of questions and a number of holes to fill. One of the biggest questions was how the frontcourt would be filled. Penn State had a number of bodies in Jordan Dickerson, Donovon Jack, Brandon Taylor, Mike Watkins and Julian Moore, but it had no idea which of them could perform consistently and who could play together.
Could Taylor play small forward with two other big men? Would Moore take a step forward in his sophomore season? How big of an impact (none) would Watkins make as a freshman? These were just a few questions Penn State fans had.
Now three games into the conference schedule, it seems the Nittany Lions have a plan they’re sticking with. Shot-blocking specialist Dickerson is (not surprisingly) the team’s starting center while Taylor plays stretch-four and sophomore wing Payton Banks starts at the three. So far, the results have been pretty respectable.
Dickerson is the same guy we already knew he ways, providing very good defense and blocking some shots (2.0 per game so far). And Banks has been a pleasant surprise, averaging 11.8 points and 5.3 rebounds in 30 minutes a game after playing less than nine last season.
Then there’s Taylor, who been the MVP of the Lions season so far. After playing inconsistently and frustrating fans the past two seasons, Taylor is averaging 16.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and shooting 44 percent from the field. He’s also scored in double digits in all three Big Ten games so far.
So what about the rest of the rotation? For starters, Watkins isn’t eligible to play this year, so cross him off. After that, Moore and Jack both seem to be firmly entrenched as bench players at this point.
While that isn’t really surprising in either case, it will be interesting to see how big a role both of them play going forward. Both only played five minutes during the Lions win over Minnesota on Thursday, and Moore is averaging 15 minutes this season while Jack is only getting about 13.
Although it makes sense to see Jack coming off the bench, it is somewhat disappointing to see him not contribute consistently. After showing plenty of promise as a sophomore, his role has been reduced the past two years and his career doesn’t seem to be ending on a high note. He can still shoot and has always been a hard worker, but Jack’s lack of athleticism and penchant for fouling seem to have caught up with him.
On the positive side, freshman wing and 3-point specialist Davis Zemgulis has seen his playing time rise five straight games and is starting to contribute. Yeah, he’s not a true forward, but he deserves a shout-out here anyway.
As we’ve all said many times, there’s still plenty of games left and plenty of time for Penn State to switch up its lineup. And while Taylor and Dickerson won’t be around next year, hopefully their presence will help stabilize Penn State and help its young guys grow. At the very least, have a decided group of starters is positive enough in a season like this.