Big Ten basketball previews: Penn State Nittany Lions

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Black Shoe Diaries

Last season

It was an ugly year for Ed DeChellis and Penn State, as they finished the season 11-20 overall and 3-15 in the Big Ten, good for last place. They finished non-conference play at just 8-4 against a soft schedule, then lost their first twelve conference games and seemed in danger of becoming the first team to go winless in Big Ten play since the 2000 Northwestern team coached abandoned by Kevin O'Neill. Fortunately for DeChellis, he still had two games remaining against Northwestern, and he won them both by double digits to continue his bizarre dominance of Bill Carmody (and yes, I know dominating Carmody isn't really all that difficult, but even though Carmody has more overall Big Ten wins since DeChellis took over at Penn State, DeChellis is 10-4 against Carmody and has won 8 of the last 9 meetings). Penn State also managed a win at Michigan, but saw their season end in the first round of the Big Ten tournament after they were blown out by Minnesota.

The Nittany Lions were a lot more competitive than their record would indicate, as they lost a number of close games, but they still took a huge step back from 2009, when they had a winning record in conference play and won the NIT after being snubbed by the NCAA selection committee.

Players not returning

Penn State didn't lose anyone to graduation, but they won't return three rotation players from last season. The biggest loss is starting shooting guard Chris Babb and his mohawk, who transferred to Iowa State. Babb averaged 9 points per game as a sophomore, and was a solid 3-point shooter at 37%. Wing Bill Edwards (4 ppg last year as a freshman coming off the bench) transferred to Miami (Ohio), and reserve big man Andrew Ott elected to leave the program after graduating even though he had another year of eligibility left.

None of the three were ever going to develop into All-Big Ten players, but it has to be a bit distressing for Penn State fans to see 3 guys who would have gotten minutes this season voluntarily leave the program. The Babb and Edwards transfers won't hurt much this season, but they certainly will next season after 4 senior starters have graduated.

Backcourt

Any discussion of Penn State's guards begins with senior Talor Battle, who led the team in scoring (18 per game), rebounding (5.3 per game), assists (4.2 per game, and steals (1.1 per game) a season ago. He's one of the top guards in the conference and should have another huge year as a senior.

The other starting guard figures to be sophomore Tim Frazier, who struggled with his shooting (38% from the floor while shooting mostly twos) and turnovers (almost 4 per forty minutes), but did show himself to be a solid passer (more than 5 assists per 40 minutes).

If Frazier doesn't improve, he may lose the starting job to Battle's brother, freshman Taran Buie. Buie was a highly touted recruit and could very well develop into the same type of player as Battle, and for Penn State to improve a lot this year he will probably need to.

Freshmen Jermaine Marshall and Tre Bowman and junior Cammeron Woodyard will also compete for minutes.

Frontcourt

Penn State will be starting three seniors on their front line: David Jackson, Jeff Brooks, and Andrew Jones. Jackson, a 6'7 wing, is the best scorer of the three, averaging 9 points per game last season on 50% shooting and 37% 3-point shooting. Brooks (7 ppg, 4 rpg) and Jones (6 ppg, 5rpg) are both servicable but unspectacular post players, and Penn State needs them to make more of an impact on both ends of the court.

Freshmen Jonathan Graham and Billy Oliver should also figure in the rotation. Oliver is interesting; he's on track for the Evan Eschmeyer plan, having taken two redshirt years due to concussions and exercise-induced headaches. The good news is he's now healthy, and he did have 10 points off the bench in Penn State's exhibition opener over the weekend, so he may be a solid 3-point shooter off the bench.

Expectations

Penn State's basketball program is currently at a crossroads. Already forced to play in the large shadow of the football program, they will soon be competing directly with the newly added ice hockey program for attention in the winter season. After the NIT championship in 2009, the program rewarded DeChellis with a contract extension, a decision that's looking like a mistake after last year's debacle. It's extremely important for both DeChellis and the program to turn things around this season; the team will lose 4 starters after the season and probably be in all-out rebuilding mode for a couple years, so this looks like the last chance in the immediate future to compete for a post-season tournament bid. Unfortunately, it seems to me that the realistic ceiling for this squad is the NIT, and even that's a long way from a lock. The roster is very similar to last year's team, and while the record in close games should regress to the mean and improve, I think that mean is only 5 or 6 conference wins, certainly an improvement but not nearly enough of one. If Buie is the real deal, and the senior forwards show improvement, Penn State could maybe approach .500 in the Big Ten, but DeChellis' career 34-93 record in the Big Ten doesn't inspire a lot of optimism. They should separate themselves from cellar dwellers Michigan and Iowa, and you can pencil in at least one upset of Northwestern (I don't think you can even really call it an upset at this point), but I don't see them winning many games against the top 6 teams in the conference. A difficult conference schedule (just one game vs Iowa and Indiana, two vs. everyone else) won't help matters either.

SoP Prediction: 9th in the Big Ten, CBI

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