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Penn State basketball postmortem

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Try as he might, D.J. Newbill could not turn Penn State into a good basketball team.

Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

I don't like calling these things postmortems because that implies that something is dead when, in fact, sports are an everlasting cycle of traditional goodness that come back season after season to bring us joy. At least that's the case for football. In basketball, Penn State is pretty much dead, so the moniker is more appropriate.

Penn State finished 18-16 this season, which doesn't sound too bad until you remember that the Lions were 12-1 entering Big Ten play. They appeared poised to at least make a run at the NIT, but that non-conference record was really just a mirage formed by too-close-for-comfort wins over the likes of Marshall, Duquesne, Cornell, and Drexel. At least a victory over George Washington (who in turn defeated Wichita State!) gave Penn State fans hope that maybe, just maybe, this year's team could be special.

At least it had a truly special player in D.J. Newbill leading the way. If not for him, the year really would have been a disaster. The Big Ten's leading scorer probably deserved to be a First Team All-Big Ten player, but when people see 20.7 points per game on a lousy team, they see a volume scorer who isn't helping his teammates enough to create a winner. Penn State fans see a guy who is giving everything he has to a program that has but one NCAA Tournament appearance in the past decade.

There are cases to be made for both sides. One one hand, Newbill's 45-percent field goal shooting was better than the next four leading scorers for Penn State, so he was justified in taking every shot he could find. On the other, it would be nice if a player who has the ball in his hands so much could muster more than 3.1 assists per game.

The problem is that Newbill was never a point guard and head coach Pat Chambers didn't give him enough good players to pass to. Newbill himself was the team's best three-point shooter at 37 percent. Even with defenses often focused on slowing him down, players like Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner never became consistent weapons. There were moments when Garner would hit two or three in a row and you could see some potential, but then he'd go and waste a couple of possessions by firing from 25 feet with 20 seconds left on the shot clock.

Ross Travis, who other than Newbill is the only key player graduating, spent most of the season mired in a free throw slump that severely limited his breakout potential. After playing perhaps the best game of his career in the Big Ten Tournament upset over Iowa (17 points, seven boards, 5-for-6 free throws), Travis rides off into the sunset and leaves behind a lot of rebounds that someone else will have to grab next season.

That Big Ten Tournament run was a fun way to end an otherwise frustrating season. Even if the effort was too little and too late, it was nice to see the Lions get the right combination of defense, Newbill, and role player contribution to take down a good team like Iowa and nearly topple Purdue with a trip to the semifinals on the line.

The defense -- ranked 50th nationally by Ken Pomeroy -- is something that has to carry over to next season, because without Newbill, the offense has the potential to be even uglier than it was in 2014-15. Jordan Dickerson has to figure out how to block shots without committing over seven fouls per 40 minutes, Geno Thorpe has to continue to be a top on-ball defender, and someone has to step up and grab Travis's rebounds.

That's because unless Garner or Thorpe take a huge step forward, next year's team will be a bunch of bad three-point shots, Thorpe driving to the basket looking for contact, and everyone crashing the boards to collect the many offensive rebounds that will be available.

Fortunately, there is hope on the horizon thanks to perhaps the most talented recruting class in Penn State basketball history. Chambers was handed a two-year extension in March, and the only reasons why this is good news is the improvement on defense and the incoming class that includes two four-star prospects.

There will be plenty of time to talk about this in autumn, but Josh Reaves out of Oak Hill Academy has the athleticism and scoring ability to take the torch from Newbill and become the next great Penn State guard. Mike Watkins is the skilled big man that the Lions never seem to get their hands on. He's already a great shot blocker, so watch out if his offensive game develops. Rounding out the class is Deividas Zemgulis, a Lithuanian by way of Maryland who is Penn State's top long-range shooter right out of the box.

Since the 2010-11 team that qualified for the big dance, Penn State basketball has been in a cycle of hope turning into despair. A great player like D.J. Newbill not being enough to even lift the Lions into the NIT was just another part of that cycle, but maybe this upcoming class can break it. It's still hard to imagine next year's team being a worthy one, but a lot depends on how quickly Reaves and company adapt to college basketball.

So sure, Penn State basketball may be dead to you now, but the next rebirth is right around the corner.