Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
If Penn State is going to make a move back towards the top portion of the Big Ten Conference under Pat Chambers, this season is by far his most crucial yet.
In Chambers’ first two years at the school, the Nittany Lions were a combined 22-41 (.349), with just six conferences wins over that span, the lowest such number in the league. He didn’t exactly inherit a roster capable of competing in the Big Ten, either, after four of the top five contributors from a 19-15 season in 2010-11 all graduated.
So he had to basically start over. Only sophomore guard Tim Frazier is left from that 2009-10 team; what Chambers has now is a roster made up primarily of players he brought in either by his first two recruiting classes or through a few key transfers. And although not quite every player on the roster is there by his doing, Chambers has the team in a mindset as if they were.
“When I took the job I had to make those current players on the team ‘my guys,’” Chambers told CoBL. “So we spent a lot of time with them the first couple years in developing relationships, asking them to sacrifice and be disciplined and give themselves up to us and the program–and for the most part, guys bought in.”
There’s certainly a level of trust that needs to develop between players and coach, and that’s something that does indeed take time. There’s been a lot of roster overturn in the last two years, with Jon Graham, Jermaine Marshall, Patrick Ackerman and Akosa Maduegbunam all transferring out this past offseason.
Frazier is now a redshirt senior and one of four captains on the Nittany Lions, along with senior forward Alan Wisniewski, redshirt junior D.J. Newbill and junior Ross Travis. That quartet represents that mix of players that Chambers inherited (Frazier, Wisniewski), began his time at the school with (Travis) and brought in after his arrival (Newbill, who transferred from Southern Miss.).
(For more on Frazier’s tough rehab this offseason, read Austin Lederman’s story here)
To have a successful program, especially in a high-major conference like the Big Ten, there needs to be a consistency and attitude that permeates throughout the team. Entering Year Three, Chambers seems confident that this group is all on board thanks to his captains, who understand what he wants out of them.
“They’ve done a great job of instilling the mantra of attitude and hard work, and being positive and earning the right in the locker room everyday,” Chambers said. “So when you have that type of leadership, the players now take ownership and when the players take ownership, you’re definitely headed in the right direction.”
That right direction doesn’t mean that Penn State needs to be on the same level as an Indiana (two consecutive Elite 8 appearances) or a Michigan State (16 consecutive NCAA Tournaments), but certainly a school that makes the Big Dance more often than nine times in the last 71 seasons. The Nittany Lions made a one-game appearance in the tournament in 2011 and went to the Sweet 16 in 2001; prior to that, the schools’ last NCAA Tournament win was in 1955.
No, Penn State is likely not going to be thought of as a basketball school. But there is certainly the ability to have a respectable basketball program, one that competes annually for a spot in the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on these guys but I think we’re going to be a heck of a lot better than the last two years,” Chambers said. “Tight games, maybe games you’re not supposed to win, I think we could come out on top this year as opposed to the last couple of years. Are we a postseason team? I hope so.”
The pieces would seem to be in place, starting with Frazier, who averaged 18.8 ppg and 6.2 apg in 2011-12; he went down in the fourth game of last season with a torn Achilles.
His backcourt mate is Newbill, who led the team with 16.3 ppg and 4.0 apg in his first year as a Nittany Lion last season. The two should form one of the toughest backcourts in the entire league, and strong guard play is essential for victory at that level.
They’re just one reason Chambers is optimistic about his teams’ chances to surprise people this season.
“I think we’ve got great guard play, I think we’ve got great chemistry, I think we have great depth,” he said. “Our locker room seems to be very cohesive, there’s a lot of love and when you have that type of locker room, that usually helps you win games.”
While those more experienced players are certainly going to have to lead, PSU’s success this season is going to hinge on the play of a few of the younger players, including sophomore forwards Brandon Taylor and Donovan Jack.
Last year, Taylor played 20.2 mpg, averaging 5.3 ppg and 3.3 rpg and hitting double figures in scoring six times. The 6-foot-7 Trenton Catholic grad and Team Philly AAU alum is a versatile combo forward who needs to improve on his 28.6 percent shooting from 3-point range. Jack, also very versatile at 6-9 and 210 pounds, played in 17 games (6.6 mpg) last year before a stress fracture in his foot kept him out the last six games of the season.
“They’re both probably as of right now in the starting lineup,” Chambers said. “They’re both producing at a very high level, and the thing I’m most proud of is they’re very consistent. One thing about them is they gave up their summer and spent two summers here when they didn’t really need to…and worked on their weaknesses, they continued to develop their strengths.”
Jack and Taylor represent Chambers’ first recruiting class at Penn State, and his second is expected to make an impact as well. Shaler (Pa.) native Geno Thorpe is a speedy point guard who proved he’s a high-major talent with an impressive performance at this May’s Mary Kline Classic. Julian Moore, a Germantown Academy grad, brings some size to the Nittany Lions at 6-9 though he’s also got the ability to hit a 3-pointer.
“The early returns are very high,” Chambers said of his freshmen. “Julian Moore [is]…really athletic, high-motor, in a scrimmage yesterday did a lot of really good things for being so young and trying to pick up our system. And I’d say the same for the three guards–Geno, Graham [Woodward] and Payton [Banks]–extremely skilled, extremely competitive, and a good chippy side to them where they’re pushing the veterans every single day.”
So all the pieces are there. Talented and experienced guards, versatile forwards, and exciting young talent. Maybe saying Penn State will be the 2013 Big Ten Champions is a stretch at this point, but there’s no reason to count them out just yet, either.
“Our attitude needs to be in the right place, our work ethic needs to be at the highest of levels, and you have to earn the right to have success,” Chambers said. “And if we can do the formula that I’ve put together for success then this year is definitely one of those years you can change and start winning more games than people expect you to.”