We are excited to have Eric from Black Shoe Diaries join us to explain the magic and wonder of the Penn State Nittany Lions basketball resurgence, their hot scoring start from outside the arc, the cautious optimism on the PSU side leading up to tonight's not-quite-televised matchup against St. John's at 7:00 PM in Brooklyn's Barclays Center.
Q// A quick look at Penn State's statistics tells me that Penn State is 5-1! But that record is dependent on heavy doses of Tim Frazier and DJ Newbill and Ross Travis. Is this an exciting 5-1 or a cautious 5-1?
It's cautiously exciting! The season is just too young to get excited by the 5 teams PSU has beat so far. If La Salle resembled the sweet sixteen version of last year, then we might be able to hold our heads a little higher right now, but these next few games for PSU will be the early season barometer to see how this team stacks up.
This PSU team has more depth, athleticism, and shooters than in recent years, but there's definitely weaknesses that many are concerned about.
Q// What is it that Penn State is doing well on the court? Which players power the good part of the attack?
Shooting the ball. It's still pretty incredible for some of us to grasp just how many quality shooters there are on this team, because the last two years had been marked by a never-ending struggle to get to 60 points every game. So far they're shooting 9% better as a team from 3 this year and 12% better from inside the arc. Overall, their eFG% jumped from just a measly 44.2% eFG% to a whopping 56.2% this year.
With PSU's hot-shooting, they've been able to score points in bunches. They've blown away their 70-points-for-free-Big-Macs promotion, as anyone who has attended a PSU home game this year has been offered a free Big Mac. There have been no signs of slowing down on offense and with an elite distributor like Tim Frazier, there shouldn't be a shortage of good looks.
Q// And what are the Nittany Lions (is there a shorter nickname? I mean, really.) not doing well? Are there notable culprits there?
The big concern coming into the season was what, if anything, they were going to get out of the frontcourt. Penn State lacks size, bodies, and experience on the front line. It's no secret this team relies heavily on its guards to run the show, but the hope was the big men wouldn't be a complete liability.
There's been signs of life from Brandon Taylor and Donovon Jack, but those guys are still early in their development, especially Jack who didn't see much time last year, and have had a very hard time staying out of foul trouble.
Team defense has definitely been a major concern after seeing this team on the floor. Chambers prides his guys on effort and attitude, motivating his players to play a balls-to-the-wall style of defense. Dives, deflections and hustle plays are all tracked by the coaching staff through what they call the Attitude Club, as players compete to win AC for each game by getting the most floor burns.
However, with the new hand-check rules and the block/charge interpretation, a lot of PSU's hustle has been negated. The Lions are obviously still adjusting to the new rules, but they better figure it out sooner than later before Big Ten ball starts.
Q// Does PSU play zone and pack the paint? Not because that's bee the Johnnies obvious flaw or anything, just asking. For a friend.
They will from time to time, but it's not their base defense. They've also thrown out some more 1-2-2 press so far this year, since the roster has more guard depth and better athleticism. Not sure how much we'll see of that, though, versus a team with comparable, if not better athletes.
The Lions play mostly their pack-line man-to-man [editor's note: like Virginia's defense] with an emphasis on stopping dribble penetration. But there's still a huge learning curve with this team on how to rotate defensively and defend without fouling. T
It's telling when you have a duo like Tim Frazier and DJ Newbill, who can seemingly get to the rim at will at times, yet your opponents are still earning more trips to the foul line than you.
Q// Is this scoring level sustainable, especially with the three-point shooting? Or does it have to do with the opponents?
It's definitely not sustainable, because they're not going to score like this in the Big Ten. But with the strides made by Brandon Taylor and Ross Travis, and a very nice pickup in Allen Roberts as a 3-point specialist off the bench, this team has plenty of options on any given night. They've had 4 different leading scorers already, while Roberts scored 17 off the bench last game. If someone is having a bad shooting night, they have other players that are capable of stepping up in the scoring column.
Also, one of their best pure scorers is still on the bench (John Johnson, transfer from Pitt) until mid-December, and it's expected he will add another scoring dimension to this offense when he becomes eligible.
Q// How did Bucknell beat Penn State?!
There obviously were some woes on defense when you allow Bucknell to put up 90 points in your own arena. That game was frustrating because they simply couldn't keep Bucknell's guards out of the lane, particularly Kasper.
I've never seen Penn State defend ball screens worse. They would go under screens of shooters and over screens of drivers. When the help came, they wouldn't be able to rotate out on shooters and when the help didn't come, Kasper would tear PSU up inside. The Bison put on a shooting clinic, too, which obviously made matters worse.
In total, Bucknell scored 1.34 PPP for the game, the worst defensive performance in any PSU game under Chambers.
Q// In the third year of Pat Chambers' reign, how is the team looking so far? Think of the answer relatively (we know "Penn State basketball" is right up there with "Indiana football" and "SEC basketball" as concepts that are officially recognized but in reality, we're not sure if they are a myth like the Easter bunny) and absolutely on the national scene.
This is really the first year Chambers has had much of anything to work with. He inherited a mess of a roster that has taken two full seasons to overturn. He didn't have a first recruiting class because he wasn't hired until June, and he only had about 3 or 4 months to recruit his 2012 class.
Tim Frazier getting hurt last year has turned out to be a break for the program. The potential of this year's team with Frazier is higher than either last year's team with him or this year's team without him.
There's still much we don't know about Chambers and whether he's the guy that can finally build something here. But he still has time considering the circumstances he's had to deal with (he hadn't coached a game on the hardwood before the Sandusky scandal unfolded).
He's done an admirable job making the program relevant around the state and definitely in Philadelphia, a region this program should have been recruiting for a long time but never could successfully. However, there's still plenty of ground to cover before we can expect this program to be relevant nationally or even just within the Big Ten conference.
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