It’s Final Four Saturday in Atlanta, one of my favorite days of the year. Growing up, college basketball might have been my favorite sport. A huge reason for that was my annual March trips with my dad and brother to a 1st and 2nd round site nearby, or as we got older conference tournaments in New York or Indianapolis. We would watch 6 games in person, many more on TV, spend time with grandparents, aunts, uncles, family friends, and just overdose on hoops. It all culminated on that great Saturday night where 4 teams fought for one of 2 spots in the title game.
It’s also safe to say that I did not end up at Penn State because of the basketball program. However, I was in the car, on the way home from Dayton (and tournament games there), when the Nittany Lions upset North Carolina for a berth in the Sweet 16 way back in 2001. But, I did fully embrace the program during my 4 years as a student, and have continued to follow things closely in my nearly 8 years as an alumnus. As we sit here, with Wichita State, Michigan, Louisville, and Syracuse ready to play on college basketball’s biggest stage, it seems like a perfect opportunity to share some thoughts on where Patrick Chambers and the Nittany Lions are going, as Eric did a couple of weeks ago.
In the immediate future, it’s hard not to get at least a little excited when you look at the back court Chambers has assembled for the 2013-14 season. D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall shouldered a huge load this past season, both in minutes, and scoring pressure, and both showed they can be consistent scorers in the Big 10. With Newbill in particular, the experience running the point against some of the country’s top teams is going to be huge both next year, and beyond. Next year, both will slide back to more natural positions, and roles, with the return of Tim Frazier. John Johnson, a transfer from Pitt, will also become eligible at the end of the fall semester, adding more experience. He is also a talented player, getting offers from Pitt, PSU, Notre Dame, Georgia Tech and St. John’s out of high school.
While his loss to injury this past season obviously hurt in the short term, it could very well be a blessing in disguise, both in this next season, but also down the road. Rather than sliding into the point guard spot as a true freshman, incoming recruit Geno Thorpe can be eased into action, and learn from one of the best point guards in the country. Along with Thorpe, high scoring Minnesota guard Graham Woodward, Peyton Banks join the fold, and should provide much needed depth.
At forward, the picture is more murky, and probably the biggest reason I’m not going all in on next year’s team. Sasa Borovnjak played well down the stretch for PSU, but all indications are he intends to go forward with his plan to forgo his final year of eligibility. Behind him, is a lot of question marks. Freshman Brandon Taylor played well in spurts this year, but was forced to more of an outside role. In my mind, it’s crucial he becomes more of a forward, with the ability to play outside, instead of the other way around. Jon Graham shows flashes on both ends, but has yet to put it all together with any type of consistency. With Sasa’s departure, Graham would appear to be in line for more playing time. Ross Travis is the most intriguing of the bunch. He is another player that was asked to do a lot this year, and while he struggled with his offense, his tenacity on the boards and the defensive end were huge. I expect him to take another step forward going into his junior season, and hopefully refine his game more on the offensive end. He’s very underrated when he attacks the basket, instead of settling for #RossTravisJumpShots. Another freshman, 6’10″ Julian Moore, will likely factor in, but save for your average high school All American, it’s tough to expect a lot from freshman forwards at the Big 10 level.
What does all of that mean for next year’s expectations? In short, I think this team, should they play to their potential, gets into the tournament (the real one, not the NIT). While it’s great to have a dominant big man, the majority of the college game is guard oriented, and PSU sets up well in that regard. It won’t get a lot of headlines, but a starting back court of Frazier, Newbill, and Marshall, will be one of the better ones in the Big 10. Perhaps even more crucial though, is there are guys behind them. Chambers will rely on those 3, but Johnson provides experienced depth, and I’m excited to see what Thorpe, Woodward, and Banks can bring. On the inside, Travis, Graham, Taylor, and the freshman Moore, will need to take the next step, but they also won’t be asked to do too much with the talent at gaurd.
Going foward, PSU has 1 commitment for the class that will begin signing this fall, Williamsport, PA guard Isaiah Washington. With the reported departures of Patrick Ackerman and Akosa Maduegbunam, Chambers could have 1 more scholarship to offer to that class, depending of if it is used prior to the 2013-14 season or not. So barring huge changes or a rash of departures, PSU will be going forward with most of the names you are familiar with. There are still holes to fill at forward, and given time, I am hopeful Chambers can do that. He has shown a willingness to target big names, and while Brandon Austin’s decommitment hurt, it did provide some hope that Chambers’ Philly connections will only help over time.
I wrote back in February about how PSU found itself in this boat, and also that I almost give Chambers a free pass these first two seasons, given the hand he was dealt. The way the team played down the stretch, never giving up, despite the 0-14 B1G mark going into the Michigan game, tells me a lot about Chambers. This team could have thrown in the towel numerous times over the season, but never did. It was that same “never say die” attitude we saw in Chambers’ first season. He has such a passion for coaching, and for making it work here. Penn State basketball will never be Indiana, or Kentucky, or Ohio State or…you get the picture. However, for the first time since I can remember, it really does feel like the right man is directing the ship to point it in the right direction.
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