Penn State Basketball: Struggles Could Grow Into Successes for Nittany Lions' Future
For the past half decade Penn State basketball has had its go-to player.
Talor Battle terrorized Big Ten opponents for four years with last-second, usually inexplicable shots. Jamelle Cornley, who played with his heart on his sleeve, often carried the team on his back. Geary Claxton used his freak athleticism to keep an often over-matched team competitive in games.
But the 2012-13 edition of Penn State basketball lacks that player, a game-on-the-line star that will overcome the odds when the chips are on the table. All-Big Ten guard Tim Frazier was going to be that player, but a season-ending Achilles injury has postponed those game-winners for next season. It has left coach Pat Chambers with a cast of players still figuring out the game.
In the end, it could be for the better.
Without Frazier, the Nittany Lions are forced to learn the team game. Often a criticism of the Talor Battle era was then-coach Ed DeChellis' tendency to put the ball in Battle's hand, run out the clock, and hope that his slightly undersized guard could finish or draw a foul. To his credit, the Nittany Lions won the NIT and made the NCAA Tournament in two of DeChellis' final three years at the helm, but often, a team playing with a cold Battle was a team often on the losing side of the scoreboard.
No real star means everyone has to pull their own weight this season. Certainly the likes of guards Jermaine Marshall and DJ Newbill are no slouches, averaging a combined 30 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists a game. But without the safety net of a Battle or a Frazier there is a heightened sense of urgency to grow into a role.
"Coach told me I had to grow up fast," freshman Brandon Taylor said. The 6-foot-7 forward has averaged nine points while shooting 40 percent from three over the past seven games. "He told me I couldn't be a freshman. I had to be a sophomore now."
Sophomore forward Ross Travis has also stepped up his game in his second year in Happy Valley. A retooled jump shot along with a new found sense of confidence has developed him into a walking double-double, his athleticism and 6-foot-7 frame makes him a matchup problem for smaller teams.
"I'm just shooting the ball without thinking about it," Travis said following his 14-point showing against Army. "And shooting the ball with confidence. I think that is playing a huge role."
Others have improved their game as well. Often criticized forward Sasa Borovnjak has averaged nine points over the past three games while shooting just over 70 percent from the field. Freshman forward Donovon Jack had a mini coming out party in his 12 minutes of play against Delaware State, splitting a double-team and scooping the ball up and under for two of his eight points.
“Just so you know I was yelling for a timeout,” Chambers said smiling. “For anyone who really wants to know the truth, I was yelling timeout because I saw a freshman in a trap and we needed the possession. I was proud of him. Maybe he grew up today. Just maybe. He played very aggressive, and we haven't seen that all year. We're starting to see it in practice a little bit.”
The growth in the nonconference comes with an obvious caveat. It isn’t conference play. With two games separating a 6-4 Nittany Lions squad from Big Ten foes, encouraging signs are accompanied with the realization that the likes of Michigan, Indiana and Ohio State will bring a much tougher test.
“We still have a ways to go here, especially defensively," Chambers said bluntly following Penn State’s overtime win against Delaware State. “We couldn't get stops in the last four minutes of that game. We have to clean that up. We have to defend much better to be able to compete in the Big Ten.”
In the end, Penn State’s 2012-13 season is likely destined to be a long one through no fault or lack of effort. However, the growth of the current roster, the return of Tim Frazier and the addition of four freshman and Pittsburgh transfer John Johnson could lead to an interesting campaign in 2013-14.
Earlier in the month, prior to his life on crutches, Tim Frazier was scooting around in a wheel chair throwing up 3-pointers with one arm. The result was varied, but the senior's enthusiasm wasn't limited to his physical constraints. Even though he would never want to be injured, there is a certain excitement in his eyes when he talks about next season.
“You get another year in college, and it hurts not being able to play right now, but seeing these guys grow up before your eyes, it makes you look forward to next season,” Frazier said smiling.