Penn State’s men’s basketball team returned to the court after head coach Patrick Chambers gave his players a week off to clear their heads and reflect on the season.
To say that the offseason was short is an understatement. But after a run that led the Nittany Lions to the Big 10 Tournament quarterfinals, players were highly motivated and itching to resume basketball-related activities.
“We’re excited and we’ve already started,” Chambers said. “We already started our spring workouts and our guys wanted to get back in the gym. That’s exciting, especially for me. We’re going to start lifting [Monday] and I think they’re in a good place heading into the offseason.”
Despite an up and down season for the Nittany Lions, they managed to win three consecutive games in March, including two in the conference tournament against Nebraska and Iowa.
Although they would go on to fall to Purdue in their quarterfinals matchup, the Lions late season success figures to offer plenty of momentum heading into next season. Experience will also be in their favor, with six players who averaged double-digit minutes expected to return.
With that said, there’s also a huge void that will need to be filled in regards to on-court production due to the loss of D.J. Newbill, who will graduate in May.
Newbill, the team’s leading scorer and second-team All-Big Ten selection, was undoubtedly the team’s best player and leader.
The senior guard scored close to 31 percent of the team’s points this season while averaging 20.7 points per game, good for first in the conference and eighth in the nation by the end of the regular season.
Newbill was relied on heavily throughout the past three years, but Chambers has noted that he wants to take a different approach in terms of offensive production moving forward. He no longer wants one player scoring majority of the team’s points next season.
The Lions showed throughout the Big 10 Tournament that they could produce double-digit scoring efforts from multiple players in a single game, as senior senior forward Ross Travis, sophomore guard Geno Thorpe and freshman guard Shep Garner stepped up when needed. That’s a trend Chambers hopes continues in the future.
“We were close to averaging four guys the last six games in double-digits,” Chambers said. “I’d like to see us play like that. I’d like to see really good production. Now do I want to see the disparity between the leading scorer and the second leading scorer? No, I don’t. If we can get it to [five different players averaging] 14, 12, 11, 10, 10, that’s going to make us a very difficult team to guard.”
Even with Newbill gone, Penn State will most likely continue to receive most of its offensive production from its backcourt. Both Garner and Thorpe showed noteworthy growth throughout the season, and expect to pick up where they left off as the offseason progresses.
Garner, a true freshman who averaged 9.1 points per contest, started every game at point guard and scored in double figures 15 times. Thorpe, mostly known for his aggressive defensive prowess, showed much improvement on the offensive end. He raised his scoring averaged from 3.2 to 8.8 from his freshman to sophomore campaign. Chambers would often inserted the team’s sixth man and defensive ace into the starting lineup even if it meant moving Newbill from shooting guard to small forward.
Both players still have aspects of their games to work on, though. Garner will have more ball handling responsibilities and has to show more consistency. Thorpe needs to continue to add to his offensive skill set, and will have to adjust to being relied upon even more on defense.
“We’re going to count on them a lot, for different things,” Chambers said. “Off the court first, leadership. And they have a lot to get better at and they know that. We’re just scratching the surface with both of them.
“Geno really shot the ball well at the end of the season, he was close to 40 percent from three the last six or seven games. Shep gave us that roller coaster ride but a maybe a little more consistent towards the end. I think his assist to turnover ratio was outstanding the last six games.”
In recent years, the Lions have seen the departures of a few high-scoring guards. Newbill, Tim Frazier, Jermaine Marshall and Talor Battle are on that list. Although the backcourt is expected to step up, it’s also important for the Nittany Lions frontcourt to play a larger role next season.
Jordan Dickerson, Donovan Jack and Brandon Taylor are all rising seniors who Chambers believes can make a big impact for his team. Taylor is the most accomplished scorer out of the three. He finished second on the team in scoring this season with 9.3 points.
Taylor and Jack’s ability to score in the paint and from the outside, coupled with 7-foot Dickerson’s developing postgame will need to come on a more consistent basis if the Lions want to improve next year.
“I think Jordan is coming, he shot 60 percent from the floor the last six games,” Chambers said. “This offseason is going to be critical for him. We need to put the ball inside, because it’s going to put you on the free throw line, but they’ve got to make their free throws too.”
In addition to the players returning, the Lions will depend on their fair share of youthful talent as they transition into life with Newbill. The team’s 2015 recruiting class features two ESPN top 100 recruits in Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins, and Lithuanian star Deividas Zemgulis. There’s also rising sophomores Payton Banks and Julian Moore.
Even with the youth in place, the only thing that matters is winning. College basketball is a revolving door in terms of players coming and going, but Chambers is more than confident and thrilled about the team that he has heading into 2015-2016.
“I think [the Big Ten Tournament] taught our program and our younger guys that we can compete and we are good enough,” Chambers said. “After that game (season ending loss to Purdue), I didn’t see a dry eye and I knew we were closer than we’ve been. We’re gonna be young but we’re coming.”
*Section Photo credit to Rey Del Rio, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Matthew O’Haren, USA Today Sports