Is Penn State A Pretender Or Contender?

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 17th, 2014

Last Sunday, Penn State got its best win of the season when it soundly defeated a talented George Washington team at the Bryce Jordan Center. The victory pushed the Nittany Lions’ record to 10-1, which is tied for best in the Big Ten — the lone loss a double-overtime bout with Charlotte. While the number of wins is impressive, a deeper look into the record reveals the absence of any other resume-enhancing wins. Even last weekend’s win against the Colonials, while no easy task, represents a victory over a team that hovers around the top 50 in both the KenPom and Sagarin ratings. Also concerning is the fact that Penn State has not exactly been blowing out its inferior opponents (they won by fewer than five points against Virginia Tech, Marshall, and Duquesne, but they still won). This presents something of a paradox between their on-court performance and their record, leaving Big Ten fans to guess how good Penn State really is. In this post, I’ll explore both sides of whether Pat Chambers’ squad is really a contender or pretender as he pushes forward toward what could possibly be his first NCAA Tournament bid as the head coach.

Shep Garner has been able to emerge as a secondary scorer for Penn State in his freshman year.

Shep Garner has been able to emerge as a secondary scorer for Penn State in his freshman year (Mark Selders/GoPSUSports.com).

  • Penn State is a pretender. Look no further than the Sagarin ratings to show the true discrepancy between the Nittany Lions’ record and performance. Specifically note the Elo rating component, which is a formula that solely considers wins, losses and who they’re against, and compare it with the Golden Mean and Pure Points ratings, two metrics that take into account point differential. Based on the Elo rating, Penn State is ranked 49th in the country; his Golden Mean and Pure Points ratings list the Nittany Lions at 128th and 119th, respectively. That’s an approximate gap of 70-80 teams, with the difference accounting for actual on-court performance. KenPom makes a similar case in his ratings, as he ranks the team 89th but notes that it is among the top 40 in luck, a metric that measures how much a team’s record has been above its expected play on the court. So if you’re looking at these metrics alone, it’s undeniable that the 10-1 record is somewhat misleading.

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Big Ten M5: 12.05.14 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 5th, 2014

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  1. The Big Ten emerged victorious in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday night after Iowa secured the series-clinching eighth win by shocking North Carolina with a 60-55 road victory. It was Mike Gesell who carried the Hawkeyes to victory with his 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting. The victory for especially sweet for Iowa’s point guard, as it came against former AAU teammate Marcus Paige, an All-American and someone he considers “his brother.” Iowa’s center, Adam Woodbury, was also on that same AAU team and described what the win meant to Gesell: “I think this is great for Mike… He played really well in AAU, and for him to be compared to Marcus was unfair. I think he showed [Wednesday] that he’s his own player.” For one night at least, Gesell came away with the acclaim over his friend in Carolina Blue.
  2. While Iowa clinched the Challenge for the Big Ten, the game of the series was played later that night when Duke went to Madison and disposed of Wisconsin by 10 points. Evan Flood wrote a great summary on some of the lessons learned for the Badgers, including the continuing concern over the health of Sam Dekker’s ankle. Additionally, Flood shrewdly points out that the Badgers’ perimeter defense was sorely lacking, allowing the Blue Devils to shoot a blistering 58.7 percent from three and 67.6 percent from inside the arc. Defense was this team’s vulnerability last season and it could be the Badgers’ biggest weakness this year as well.
  3. One of the Big Ten’s wins on Wednesday came at State College, where Penn State protected home court against Virginia Tech in a three-point win. It was somewhat of a revenge game for the Nittany Lions’ senior leader, D.J. Newbill, who has a legitamite gripe against Hokies’ head coach, Buzz Williams. While at Marquette, Williams pulled a scholarship offer from Newbill after he got another commitment from Jamil Wilson, who was transferring over from Oregon. Williams’ familiarity with Newbill showed, as Virginia Tech packed the paint and used double teams to prevent the Penn State guard from getting to the rim, ending his five-game streak of scoring 20 points or more. Luckily for Penn State, Newbill was able to get enough of his teammates involved to notch the win and get some payback on someone who was, at one time, the coach he hoped to play for.
  4. Michigan State came up short in South Bend when they fell to Notre Dame by a point in overtime, but one of the bright spots in the game was the shooting of Cleveland State transfer Bryan Forbes. The 6’3″ junior guard scored 18 points, which included a 4-of-4 mark from deep. Forbes was not only accurate but timely, as he scored on a jumper at 9:03 in the second half that ended an 8-2 Irish run. Unfortunately for the Spartans, Forbes inexplicably did not take another shot after that. Moving forward, it’s going to be necessary to bring him more into the offense as Tom Izzo does not have as much offensive talent as he’s grown accustomed to having these last 15 years.
  5. Finally, another loss on Wednesday occurred when Maryland was defeated by Virginia in College Park. With the Terrapins short-handed because of injuries to Dez Wells and Evan Smotrycz, it was an expected outcome. And while this made the Terps even more of a long shot against the reigning ACC champions, it also presented an opportunity to for some of their freshmen to get invaluable experience playing elite competition. The Terps’ super frosh, Melo Trimble, was able to grind out 16 points — mostly at the free throw line — while Dion Wiley also chipped in 12. Mark Turgeon would rather have his veterans playing than not, of course, but in the long run, a game like this may end up benefiting the team as a whole. The young players on the team will be better suited for Big Ten play when their squad is expected to be at full health.
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Big Ten M5: 11.21.14 Edition

Posted by Alex Moscoso & Brendan Brody on November 21st, 2014

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  1. Anyone who watched the Wisconsin game on Wednesday night saw what could have been the dunk of the season from Wisconsin-Green Bay guard Keifer Sykes. Sykes almost went full “Deandre Jordan on Brandon Knight” in his missed dunk attempt over preseason All-American Frank Kaminsky, causing the preseason All-American to take to Twitter after the game to talk about how the dunk “would have ruined my confidence as a basketball player.” This led to a very lighthearted exchange between the two players that you can read here. It’s nice to see two great players who both hail from Chicago being supportive and recognizing the skills that each of them possesses.
  2. Many of us here at the microsite had written off Indiana after a tumultuous offseason, but after their 74-68 win over #22 SMU in Bloomington last night, we may need to reevaluate this group. Freshman sensation James Blackmon Jr. led the way with 26 points. This game also marked the return of three players from their suspensions — Troy Williams, Stanford Robinson, and Emmett Holt. What once looked like a bleak future for Tom Crean may be turning brighter thanks to the outstanding play of Blackmon Jr. — who has now proven he can play at a high level against nationally relevant teams. The freshman may singlehandedly pull the Hoosiers from the valley it found itself in just a couple weeks back.
  3. In the midst of all the holiday tournaments going on either this weekend and next week, Michigan State announced that it will be part of the Wooden Legacy tournament next season. The other headliner in the field will be Arizona. Providence and Boise State also will be playing in Anaheim along with Boston College, Evansville, Santa Clara, and UC Irvine. The Spartans will lose two of their top three players from this year’s squad, but should return Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello next season.
  4. It’s not always going to be pretty basketball, but if you’re into watching a player just go completely “Kobe” and chuck shot after shot, look no further than Penn State and D.J. Newbill. The prolific scorer put up 35 points on 33 shots in the Nittany Lions’ 97-106 double-overtime loss to Charlotte. Newbill had a chance to score the game winner with an open lane to the basket in the dwindling seconds of the first overtime, but it was blocked by Charlotte. The 35-point total was the most for a Penn State player since 1995, but without many other options on this team — especially with Tim Frazier graduated — look for more nights like these from Newbill. It’ll be entertaining if nothing else.
  5. Maryland also struggled in its quest to stay undefeated, yet managed to pull away from Fordham to notch a win on Thursday night. Unlike Northwestern, their struggles were on the offensive end. This is what senior leader Dez Wells wanted however, as he spoke to wanting to see how the young team handled things when they weren’t hitting shots. They ended up winning this one on the defensive end, holding the Rams to only eight free throw attempts and to 30.6 percent shooting from the field. A game like this should help them, especially once conference play hits. They now know that they can still get a win even if things aren’t clicking on the offensive end of the court.
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Mitch McGary Impressive, More Thoughts on Michigan’s Win Over Penn State

Posted by KTrahan on March 14th, 2013

Kevin Trahan writes for the Big Ten Microsite and covers Northwestern sports for InsideNU.com. Follow him on Twitter at @k_trahan for Big Ten Tournament updates.

Michigan is off to the second round of the Big Ten Tournament for a date with Wisconsin after an 83-66 win over Penn State in the first round. The Wolverines’ struggles this season with the Nittany Lions continued in the first half, as they led by just two at halftime, but they pulled away in the second half for an easy win. Five UM players scored in double figures, led by Trey Burke with 21.

Here are three thoughts from courtside:

  1. Mitch McGary is going to be special: Big men typically take longer to develop as freshmen than guards to, so it’s no surprise that Mitch McGary wasn’t the most “fab” of Michigan’s star freshmen in the early going. However, over the past month, McGary has shown vast improvements and has arguably been the Wolverines’ best young player over that time span. McGary continued that dominance in the first half on Thursday afternoon, posting 10 points and 10 rebounds in 13 minutes of action. He had just one more rebound and no points in the second half, but the game broke open quickly and he wasn’t needed. McGary’s improvement is a great sign for a Michigan frontcourt that will need someone to step up next year. He’ll be helpful in this year’s UM postseason run, but next year is when he’ll ultimately be able to become a star, rather than just a role player. He has all the tools for stardom — he’s aggressive on the boards and has a great knack for the basket on second-chance opportunities — and as he gains experience, he’ll become even more of a threat.

    Michigan head coach John Beilein reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten tournament against Penn State. (AP)

    Michigan head coach John Beilein reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at the Big Ten tournament against Penn State. (AP)

  2. A good tune-up for Michigan: It’s kind of hard to believe that just a month ago, Michigan was the #1 team in the nation. Now, the Wolverines couldn’t even get a bye on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament. John Beilein’s team has struggled through a number of tough losses this season, none tougher than last Sunday’s home loss to Illinois, when a bad roll on the rim cost them a big win and a higher seed in the Big Ten Tournament. That can really mess with your psyche. In a way, Thursday’s result at United Center was the perfect one for the Wolverines as they enter postseason play. It offered some adversity — Penn State began the game up 14-3 — but once things settled down, it helped the Wolverines build their confidence. They were effective from beyond the arc and got the ball inside, the latter of which they’ve struggled to do down the stretch. Friday’s game against Wisconsin will be a much bigger test, but Thursday’s game against Michigan couldn’t have gone much better for Beilein and company.
  3. Penn State’s future is bright: Penn State just might be the best 2-16 conference team in history. Being the best at being the worst isn’t exactly encouraging in itself, but the Nittany Lions are vastly improved since the beginning of the year, and that’s without first team All-Big Ten point guard Tim Frazier. They own recent wins against Michigan and Northwestern and also nearly took down Wisconsin and Iowa. They’re starting to get more confident, and next year could be the year they put it all together. Penn State could potentially have the best backcourt in the Big Ten in 2013-14. Frazier will be back, along with D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall, who are both much better now than they were in January. The frontcourt, which has been a weakness all season, has started to improve. Forward Ross Travis has really started to come into his own, and he posted 12 points and 11 rebounds against the Wolverines. Four of those rebounds came in the early going, when he was arguably the best player on the floor for a stretch. As the pieces start to come together and players continue to improve, look out for Pat Chambers’ squad. Things are definitely looking up, even coming off a year with just two conference wins.
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Big Ten M5: 12.26.12 Edition

Posted by KTrahan on December 26th, 2012

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  1. It’s been hard to convince anyone who has watched or covered Hawkeye basketball for much of the past decade to jump onto the “Iowa is back” bandwagon just yet, and for good reason; the Hawkeyes have been inconsistent at best. But this year, after an 11-2 start, Mike Hlas of the Cedar Rapids Gazette is ready to jump on the bandwagon. The Hawkeyes have a very young team and have been inconsistent at times, but they have impressive wins against Iowa State and Northern Iowa, and they’ll be a tough out at home this year. The Big Ten slate starts off against Indiana at home and then with two on the road against Michigan and Michigan State, so it certainly won’t be an easy task to get to March. Still, with a Big Ten slate that is easier than most teams’ schedules in the conference, this may finally be the year Iowa returns to the NCAA Tournament.
  2. Non-conference basketball means cupcake season for the most part, and that has led to criticism of top teams like Indiana that play so many guarantee games in November and December. However, Terry Hutchins of the Indianapolis Star said that the criticism is misguided, because much of the reason for the easy schedule is revenue-driven. The Hoosiers need to make sure that they have 18 to 20 home games per year, and an easy way to do that is to pay teams a fee to come to Assembly Hall for a beatdown. That leads to more home games and more ticket sales, which is what non-conference games are all about. The Hoosiers always go to some early season non-conference tournament, play an ACC/Big Ten Challenge game, and, this year, will have a very difficult Big Ten schedule. Playing a few cupcakes in the first two months of the season certainly isn’t something to get up in arms about.
  3. Minnesota has a history of starting fast in the non-conference season and then slumping at the start of Big Ten play, but this year’s Gophers have put together an impressive resume and look like the real deal. The Minneapolis Star Tribune recently handed out a report card on Minnesota’s non-conference schedule, and a lot of the focus is on Trevor Mbakwe, a player who is starting to look like he did before last year’s ACL injury. He is gaining strength and could potentially re-enter the starting lineup which already features stars Andre Hollins and Rodney Williams. The Gophers have so much depth that this certainly looks like Tubby Smith’s best team yet in Minnesota. Now, with conference play about to start, we’ll get some more answers about a team that has a lot of potential but still also some unknowns.
  4. When eight-year-old Mackenzie Kelley found out that her favorite player, Penn State star Tim Frazier, might not be able to play next year if he isn’t granted a medical hardship waiver, she decided to take the matter up with Santa by asking him to put a good word in with the NCAA. Kelley is a diehard Penn State fan and has met Frazier a couple of times. After she met him initially at a preseason event, she met him again and was excited to find out that “out of all the people he meets he remembered me.” Frazier got a hold of the letter and thanked Mackenzie on Facebook; luckily for Mackenzie — and Frazier — the injury happened early enough in the season that Frazier should be back on the court next year, a gift from old St. Nick indeed.
  5. Derrick Nix has been asked to take on more of a leadership role for Michigan State this year after the departure of Draymond Green, and he’s still improving, as exhibited by a career high 25 points to go along with 11 rebounds in a win on Saturday against Texas. However, the area in which Nix has improved the most isn’t something you would expect from a man his size — free throws. Nix was a bad free throw shooter when he first got to MSU, but endless hours of practice has helped him become much better, improving from a 27 percent free throw shooter as a freshman to a 70 percent free throw shooter this season. Nix said that coach Tom Izzo would rather he was moving around more before practice, but he’s always at the free throw line practicing his shot, and it’s paid off for the Spartans in the long run.
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Big Ten Team Previews: Penn State Nittany Lions

Posted by KTrahan on November 9th, 2012

Throughout the preseason, the Big Ten microsite will be rolling out the featured breakdowns of each of the 12 league schools. Today’s release is the Penn State Nittany Lions.

Where we left off: A year removed from an NCAA Tournament berth, Penn State went into rebuilding mode and struggled to return to relevancy. The Nittany Lions featured one of the best players in the Big Ten in Tim Frazier, but had no consistency elsewhere, especially in the frontcourt. Forwards Jon Graham and Sasa Borovnjak struggled mightily and guards Jermaine Marshall and Cammeron Woodyard weren’t consistent enough to complement Frazier. The Nittany Lions ended up finishing 12-20 and 4-14 in the Big Ten. This year, there will be a lot of new faces, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing as Patrick Chambers and his team try to regroup.

Tim Frazier Carries the Penn State Hoops Baton (CDC Photos/Christopher Weddle)

Positives: Obviously, the biggest positive for Penn State is Tim Frazier, who led the Nittany Lions in points, assists and rebounds last year and figures to be a first team All-Big Ten contender. Additionally, the Nittany Lions add D.J. Newbill, a redshirt sophomore who sat out a year after transferring from Southern Mississippi. He was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team two years ago, and he and Frazier should form an impressive backcourt duo. The frontcourt won’t be great, but Graham and Borovnjak should be improved this year, and Ross Travis has shown promise at forward.

Negatives: After Frazier, there are a lot of unknowns. Newbill certainly has talent, but will he be rusty after a year off and can he compete in the toughest conference in the country? The frontcourt still lacks talent and there’s no guarantee that Graham or Borovnjak will improve. The depth is there, but it’s not very talented depth, especially in the frontcourt. The Nittany Lions will be a very small team, and in a league full of talented big men, that could be a very big disadvantage.

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