With six seconds remaining until halftime in Penn State’s game against Dartmouth, senior guard D.J. Newbill drove right off a screen at the top of the key. He was approached by a defender who was forced to switch, but a quick burst off a stutter step by Newbill enabled him to turn the corner and blow past the defender.
The lane was clear for just a split second before another defender rotated over into the paint in hopes of drawing a charge. Unfortunately for him, that didn’t stop Newbill from rising up and throwing down an emphatic buzzer-beating one-handed dunk over the helpless defender, giving the Lions a 41-16 lead over the Green at the half.
A personal foul could have been called, which would have ensured a three-point play, but that’s beside the point.
Newbill has made plays like this one all season long and is quietly having an All-American caliber season. Whether it’s a highlight dunk, a Michael Jordan-esque baseline drive, or a crossover that leads into a game-winning jumpshot over one of the best guards in the Big Ten, Newbill has consistently proven himself as a player to keep your eyes on.
Penn State fans have been paying close attention, but once the Nittany Lions start playing tougher competition, the rest of the nation will follow suit.
The senior guard has played spectacularly for the Lions this season. His 21.4 points per game average leads the Big Ten conference and ranks No.11 in the country among Division-I players. He’s shooting 47 percent, including 39 percent from beyond the arc, while grabbing 4.8 rebounds, dishing out a team-leading 3.2 assists, and coming up with 1.4 steals.
After Penn State’s first seven games of the season, the Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native was named Big Ten Co-Player of the Week as the country’s third leading scorer. At that point, he was averaging 25.0 points per game after a week in which he produced a 28.5 average while leading the Lions to a home win over Akron, and a road victory at Bucknell. He also tallied 5.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game in the two wins.
Through Penn State’s first 13 games he’s reached double-figures in each contest, and has scored 20 or more points in six outings. He scored a season-high 35 points in the team’s lone loss of the season, in which they fell to Charlotte, 106-97, in double overtime in the first game of the Charleston Classic.
His individual play has been impressive, but the effect that it has had on the team’s early season success is what’s most important. The Lions are surging into Big Ten competition.
Penn State wrapped up its non-conference schedule atop the conference with a 12-1 record and on a 10-game winning streak, both of which are its best marks since the 1995-96 season. Its 12 non-conference wins are a program record. The Lions are also undefeated at home at 7-0.
The biggest news out of all is that for the second straight week, Penn State earned four votes in the weekly AP Top 25 and USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time since the 2011 season. The last time the Nittany Lions were ranked was in 1996.
If the Lions want to continue to receive this kind of recognition, Newbill will have to continue to play this high a level. He’s the team’s catalyst, but his teammates have given him the necessary help that has taken the Nittany Lions to the next level.
Freshman Shep Garner has turned out to be one of the most promising young point guards in the country. Senior forward Ross Travis is fifth in the Big Ten in rebounds with 7.4 boards per game. Junior forward Brandon Taylor has emerged as the team’s second option, averaging 10.6 points and 6.6 rebounds. He’s also proven to be a knockdown three-point shooter, as the corner three has become his sweet spot. Junior center Jordan Dickerson is showing that he can be a defensive force in the paint as an impactful shot blocker.
Senior guard John Johnson and sophomore guard Geno Thorpe bring both energy and scoring off the bench. Thorpe has been a terrific on-ball defender and always takes the challenge of guarding the opposing team’s best perimeter player. Other players such as junior center Donovon Jack, and redshirt freshmen forwards Julian Moore and Payton Banks have also stepped up in numerous ways when their numbers are called by head coach Pat Chambers.
As Penn State’s depth continues to makes noise, Newbill finds himself being able to play more freely without the pressure of having to carry the team on his shoulders, which is something that could wear him down during the team’s grueling 18-game Big Ten schedule.
While he’s the team’s undisputed leader on and off the court, he’ll only benefit even more with the help he’s getting from the Lions’ supporting cast. As they continue to come through for him, he’ll continue to put the Lions in position to surprise a lot of people, as they look to secure a NCAA tournament berth for the first time since 2011.
The Lions have a few days off this week during the Christmas holiday before they prepare to open up their Big Ten schedule next Wednesday against No. 6 Wisconsin, which will be their toughest test of the season so far.
Newbill will get his chance to put Penn State on the map. He’ll also get the opportunity to show just how good he is to the rest of the country, which is something that his teammates and those in Happy Valley have been well aware of for quite some time now.
*Section Photo credit to Centre Daily Times; Featured Photo (above) credit to Brett Carlsen, USA Today Sports