What exactly happened to the Penn State basketball team this season? There certainly were some thrilling victories, but there were also some frustrating defeats. Actually, that sounds like every college basketball season ever, but Penn State was slightly more interesting this winter than its 16-18 record would indicate. The Lions pulled turned losses into wins and wins into losses while watching a pretty good player develop into one of the Big Ten's best players. Let's break it down like would did in the old west.
Tim Frazier's final season wearing the blue and white wasn't as spectacular as it could have been. The super senior handed out 5.4 assists per game while scoring "only" 14.9 points per game. With a 29 percent shooting percentage from beyond the arc, he never quite mastered that three-point shot. Overall, though, Frazier's season has to go in the "good" category. He ran the fast break with aplomb, directed an offense that was quite efficient for Penn State standards, and he made an incredible game-winning layup against Indiana.
Speaking of game-winning layups against Indiana, that game win was one of Penn State's finest of the season. The Lions overcame an 11-point deficit with just over three minutes to play to stun the Hoosiers 66-65. The victory wouldn't look as good at the end of the season when Indiana failed to qualify for the NIT, but at the time, it was a great road win against a team that was fighting for an NCAA Tournament bid.
Those kinds of wins don't come very often for Penn State, but in 2014, they came twice. The Lions also shocked Ohio State on the road with a 71-70 overtime win. This time, D.J. Newbill was the hero with a game-winning 15-foot jumper that counted as two of his 25 points.
To make the season even sweeter, Penn State defeated the Bucks at home 65-63 for a season sweep. Once again, Newbill was the leading man for the Lions with 23 points on just nine field goal attempts. The shooting guard's development into a more efficient scorer gave fans confidence that the team can be successful with him as its best player. That wasn't the case in 2013, when Penn State lost Frazier to an Achilles injury and struggled to a 2-16 conference record.
From 2013 to 2014, Newbill improved his two-point shooting percentage from 43 percent to 50 percent and his three-point shooting percentage from 27 percent to 33 percent. Even better, he cut his turnover rate from 21 percent to just 14 percent. It's going to be tough for him to boost those numbers again with no Frazier, but if Newbill can, he'll be one of the Big Ten's top players in 2015.
Penn State won six conference games in 2014. That's not horrible considering the team's recent history, but it's not good either. One of the team's biggest problems was defense. The front line of Brandon Taylor, Ross Travis, and Donovon Jack was constantly fouling opponents (particularly Jack) and allowing too many offense rebounds. Even though the Lions allowed opponents to hit just 45 percent of their two-point shots (tops in the Big Ten), that was offset by those same opponents grabbing nearly a third of their own misses.
The forwards also didn't do enough on offense to support Penn State's dynamic guard duo. Travis got to the free throw line a decent amount, but he never developed the range that he needed to become an adequate third scorer. Jack could score around the basket or from beyond the arc in a pinch, but couldn't stay on the floor long enough to become a major factor in Penn State's offense.
When you lag behind the rest of the Big Ten in frontcourt talent the way Penn State did in 2014, there aren't a lot of games on the schedule that you're supposed to win. It would be nice if the Lions were able to take care of business in the few games they were favored in, but that wasn't the case. Probably the most crushing loss of the season came back in December against Princeton. Penn State was bringing basketball back to rec hall, and the team's fans were excited to get out of the sterile Bryce Jordan Center for one night and return to the old gym where the Lions used to play there basketball games.
Everything was going well until the final 6:30, when Penn State blew an 18-point lead to send the game to overtime. In the extra period, Frazier missed a free throw that could have tied the game with five seconds left, and a crowd that was so enthusiastic during much of the contest was forced to leave disappointed.
Another brutal loss occurred about a month later when the Lions visited Purdue. Penn State appeared poised for a road win with a three-point lead and 16 seconds left on the clock. At the very least, you'd figure that Purdue would tie the game and send it to overtime, but even that wasn't to be. Terone Johnson tied the game with a three-pointer to set up Penn State with a chance to win the game, but the Lions never got a shot off. A Newbill pass was stolen by Sterling Carter with just enough time left for the Boilers to win the game. An inbound pass to A.J. Hammons appeared to be off the mark, but the officials called a loose ball foul on Travis. Hammons hit the first free throw to give Purdue an improbable 65-64 win.
Compared to those two losses, the season-ending defeat to Siena in the CBI wasn't even that bad. Penn State's final possession was pretty pathetic, though. Down two points with four seconds to play, Newbill caught a long pass at halfcourt, but he couldn't manage to stay in bounds to attempt a shot, and so the Penn State basketball season ended with a brutal turnover.
Yes, they are going to continue playing basketball at Penn State for the foreseeable future. Newbill is coming back for his senior year, and that is very good news for the Lions and their fans. There's also a pair of young guards entering the program in Shep Garner and Isaiah Washington that could work with Geno Thorpe to form the future of Penn State's backcourt. Graham Woodward, a freshman in 2014, will be leaving the program, but in his place will be junior college transfer Devin Foster.
The frontcourt will continue to be a concern in 2015 and beyond. Jordan Dickerson and Julian Moore are very large, but also very raw. If those guys don't develop into rotation players, then the Lions will remain a very guard-dependent team for the next few years.
As for the immediate future, Pat Chambers will have to develop at least one of his current forwards into a higher impact player to take some pressure off of Newbill next season. If that happens, and if one of the young guards can contribute from the start, the Lions just might be in the mix for the big boy tourney in 2015.