Can Penn State Become This Season’s Nebraska?

Posted by Brendan Brody on November 4th, 2014

Things could have been much different for Penn State last season had it avoided what happened on December 31. In its first conference game of the season at home against Michigan State, the Nittany Lions had the #5 team in the country squarely on the ropes. They were up 12 points with 1:14 to go in the first half when the wheels fell completely off. From that point on, they were outscored 46-18 and went on to lose not only that game but their next five as well. Would Penn State have had a better season if it had held on against the Spartans’ New Year’s Eve onslaught? We’ll never know. But despite a 6-12 conference mark, last season’s team was probably closer to contention than most people realize. Many of the key pieces are back. Can Penn State be the next surprise Big Ten team to move into the top half of the league and contend for an NCAA Tournament berth in the process?

DJ Newbill has to take on more responsibility for Penn State with the loss of Tim Frazier. (

DJ Newbill has to take on more responsibility for Penn State with the loss of Tim Frazier. (

Even without the services of all-Big Ten guard Tim Frazier this season, one positive that should help this squad is having John Johnson and Jordan Dickerson fully available. Johnson sat out the first 12 games last year after transferring over from Pitt. He is a knock-down shooter, but he struggled with some rust and finding his role in the rotation. As a result, on fewer attempts, his three-point numbers dropped from 38.4 percent as a freshman to 31.8 percent last season. He should find his way on the court for better than the 20.4 MPG he averaged last year, and thus should have a greater impact scoring the ball for a team with few reliable shooters (no regular hit more than 40 percent from deep). Dickerson is a bit of a project, but he seemed to get more comfortable as a defensive presence as the season progressed. The 7-footer gives the team more flexibility in lineup options, allowing the Nittany Lions to play Donovon Jack and Brandon Taylor in the high post more often, where they are both competent shooters. Dickerson allows head coach Pat Chambers to run a four-man rotation of frontcourt bodies should anyone get into foul trouble, and his 11.8 block percentage would have ranked second in the league had he played enough minutes to qualify. He’s a legitimate rim-protector, and any offense he also happens to provide will be a bonus.

Penn State also has four upperclassmen starters back who showed intermittent flashes of high-level Big Ten play last season. DJ Newbill has a solid chance to become one of the best players in the conference. He finished second to Terran Petteway in scoring at 17.8 PPG, doing so in a multitude of ways. He’s also shown that he can play point guard if needed, which may be the case unless sophomore Geno Thorpe proves he can step into the position full-time. Ross Travis needs to shoot the ball better, but he compensates for doing a nice job on the boards for a 6’6″ player — he finished fifth in the league at 7.0 RPG. Taylor settles for jumpers far too often, but if he can become more aggressive in getting to the foul line instead of settling, he can capitalize on his stellar free throw shooting (87.7 percent). Jack got in foul trouble seemingly at the opening tip in most games, as he averaged 6.73 fouls per 40 minutes last season. When he’s able to stay on the floor, however, he gives Penn State a secondary shot blocker to Dickerson, and also another shooter to further spread the floor.

This team should be much better defensively. It not only has size but bulk, specifically on the front line. It has one above average scorer and several other complementary pieces who can get buckets if needed. The non-conference schedule features winnable games throughout, with the toughest contests seemingly coming in the Charleston Classic where Penn State might play South Carolina or Miami (FL). It will also play George Washington at home. A 12-1 or 13-0 start is not out of the question, which, combined with a 9-9 conference mark, would probably place this team squarely on the bubble come March. Chambers, to his credit, seems to be building momentum through incremental improvements, with a winning season and a quality postseason bid the next logical step. He already has two top-100 recruits headed to State College next season, and it just seems like things are falling into place for him to build a consistent and competitive program

Nebraska and Tim Miles came out of nowhere last season to get to the NCAA Tournament as the surprise team from the Big Ten, and Penn State might just be poised as the next conference team to emerge from the depths of the standings to make a move toward the top.

Brendan Brody (307 Posts)

Brendan Brody is in his fourth season covering the Big Ten for RTC. Email him at, or follow him on twitter @berndon4.

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *