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Penn State Basketball: Nittany Lions Have Issues, But Closer Than You Might Expect

by on January 17, 2014 3:00 PM

"You're only as good as your record" is a saying that is surely a first-ballot inductee into the sports cliche hall of fame. But it is the brutal and honest truth that all athletes, fans, and coaches must live with. There are wins and losses and aside from the occasional tie there is nothing else. There are no moral victories, there are no pats on the back for trying hard. You either won or you didn't.

And that's the truth Penn State basketball faces looking down the barrel of an 0-5 record in Big Ten play. You either win or you don't, and the Nittany Lions haven't picked up a victory in conference play yet this season. There isn't any sugarcoating or twisting that fact into something else. It is what it is.

But in order for that to change, the Nittany Lions will need to understand what they're doing wrong. Certainly playing in the toughest conference in the country doesn't help matters any, but self-inflicted wounds and mental errors make the challenge of finding wins all that much harder.

Contrary to popular belief or knee-jerk reactions by the casual observer, Penn State is currently fielding the best team head coach Pat Chambers has had while at Penn State. A statement largely backed up by statistics but less obvious in the win/loss column. 

In his third year, Chambers has put together a team as deep as Penn State has had in recent memory. Five underclassmen and five upperclassmen make up what is essentially a 10-man rotation.

After former head coach Ed DeChellis departed the program along with his senior heavy roster, Chambers has only now built up the team's depth, still at the point where 50-percent of the rotation has played a year or less of Division I basketball.

But those are facts as they pertain to the composition of the team. Youth itself is not enough of an excuse to override the presence of correctable mistakes. It may be accurate to say that youth makes winning harder, but as a 47-point half against Michigan State proved, it isn't as though the Nittany Lions aren't a capable bunch this year.

So what is the problem?

From a statistical standpoint, Penn State struggles in two areas that have fed into much larger issues.

On the offensive glass: Penn State picks up only 28.8 of the available offensive boards. For comparison, the best offensive rebounding team in the nation (Kentucky) grabs 45.3 percent of the available offensive rebounds. While second chance point are an obvious plus, offensive rebounds also prevent teams from scoring in transition. Penn State's offensive rebounding numbers this season have them ranked 256th in the nation. Similarly, the average height of each Nittany Lion is 76.3 inches, "short" enough for 233rd in the nation and that includes Jordan Dickerson at an honest 7-feet.

The best the Nittany Lions have ever done in this category was in 2004 when Penn State grabbed 36.7 percent of the chances on the offensive glass. That number was still only 65th best in the country.

Defensive free-throw rate: Is another area where Penn State has struggled. The Nittany Lions are fouling 45.6 times per 100 field goals an opponent takes. That number is 260th in the nation and is in some ways related to a failure to grab offensive rebounds. The more your opponent can play in transition, the greater the chance they have of generating fouls. In Penn State's case, failure to grab rebounds on the offensive glass has led to frustration fouls far away from the basket and as Penn State players scrap for the loose ball. The second of these instances far less of a sin. Penn State's defense also struggles to create turnovers which means the majority of the Nittany Lions' opponents aren't struggling to at least take a shot.

But that's not the only thing leading to free throws.

"We have guys too worried that their man will take the shot that they have struggled to play good team defense." Chambers said on Friday. "They know they're fouling too much, but sometimes when you play not to foul that's how you end up fouling. It's like playing trying not to get hurt, that's usually how you end up getting injured."

The foundation of Chambers' philosophy is the ability to rebound and play defense. Fouling hurts defense, and offensive rebounds can make or break a game, especially in the final minutes where Penn State has lost two conference games.

Although the Nittany Lions have struggled on the offensive glass and have struggled not to foul, there is light at the end of the tunnel for Penn State.

The Nittany Lions are shooing the ball at a 51.9-percent clip from two, 58th best in the nation. Penn State is also shooting the three at a 34-percent rate. Both offensive numbers are the best in the Chambers' era by a wide margin. In fact, Penn State's field goal percentage from two-point range is the best it has been in over 10 years. The mark is almost a full 2-percent better than the Nittany Lions' shooting average during the NIT Championship season in 2009 and Penn State's most recent tournament berth in 2011. In almost every offensive category, Penn State is doing it better in 2013-14 than it has done not only under Chambers but in recent years as well.

And that's what is the most frustrating fact for Penn State fans. If the Nittany Lions were just bad it would be one thing, but Penn State has made some impressive strides on offense and has little to show for it. Ironically, while the defense has struggled in terms of total points, the Nittany Lions are ranked 81st in the nation allowing their opponents to shoot only 45-percent from two. That defensive mark gives Penn State almost a 6-percent advantage shooting from two, but when the defense gives up fouls 45-percent of the time an opponent shoots, it leads to plenty of points that shouldn't have been.

So the takeaway? That's up to the fan to decide. The numbers above are the data points to work with. It wouldn't be unfair to blame Chambers for some of the defensive issues, it also wouldn't be unfair to lay blame on a roster that is not quite as experienced as it may seem. At the end of the day, Penn State has had at least two conference wins slip away, and that "blame" lies with both parties on some level.

One thing is clear though, Penn State's biggest issues come in the right places. Teams can improve their rebounding and can prevent fouling. The Nittany Lions are succeeding enough on the offensive side of the ball that corrected errors could make all the difference.

While Chambers' overly positive nature and proclamation that Penn State is "almost over the hump" and is "a better team than people give them credit for" may seem hard to support at a glance. He isn't exactly wrong.

But then again, you're only as good as you record.

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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