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Penn State Basketball: Development Key for Future, But a Balance In-Season

One of coaching’s great challenges is finding a way to balance the development of younger players with the task of simply winning the game in front of you.

One of fandom’s greatest challenges is assuming that a coaching staff has a better grasp on the players on any given team than you might. It’s the backup quarterback assumption: anything is better than this.

Well, sometimes that’s not always true.

There are the other moments though, when a young player shows flashes of what he might become one day down the road. Couple the promise of tomorrow with a team struggling to win and the urge might be there to simply give the kid a shot.

For Penn State men’s basketball, big man Abdou Tsimbila falls squarely in this category. He’s athletic, has a great motor and he just shows an “it” factor that’s hard to quantify.

But Tsimbila is also extremely raw, which is coach speak for the ability to do a lot of good things and also follow that up with some mistakes.

“The rawness is kind of on both sides [of the floor] is both positive and negative,” Penn State coach Jim Ferry said on Thursday. “You know, every game in the Big 10 and certainly every game for us this year has been one or two possession games. And it’s tough for freshmen and it’s usually for freshmen and you’re, you know, and let’s add the language barrier in there.”

And that’s really the issue for Penn State and fans who have wanted to see more of Tsimbila or any other member of the Nittany Lions’ otherwise invisible freshman class. One might argue that Penn State’s season is a wash at this point or that the potential for transfers and coaching changes this offseason makes any conventional wisdom irrelevant. There’s something to be said for that, but in reality coaches – least of all ones auditioning in real-time for a job – don’t turn conference games into glorified practices.

“It’s been tough because if I think we had a normal season with a normal preseason I think for him his development would have happened a little bit sooner,” Ferry added. “And for the other freshmen as well. Every game is so close so we have to make sure that we’re getting him in in the right situations and not putting him in a difficult situation that can change the game.”

In the right situations Tsimbila certainly looks the part if not a reminder of his predecessor Mike Watkins, in Penn State’s win over Nebraska he provided the Nittany Lions with three minutes of high-energy basketball pulling down three rebounds and registering a block.

Of course there’s more to that in a game. Tsimbila has picked up at least one foul in 10 of the 13 games he has played in and turned the ball over four times, all while averaging just 4.6 minutes per contest. This isn’t an indictment of his future or even how he has played so far this season, but it goes to shows that with young players there is the good and the bad, and in close games every single night, not much room for those errors.

Across Penn State’s roster that development continues because as John Harrar showed during the Nittany Lions’ NIT title run, you never know when your name might be called. In Harrar’s case, a season-ending injury to Watkins turned Harrar into the marquee big man for that entire run, rounding out the effort with 12 rebounds and seven points against Utah for the title.

“It was right around this time, when Mike Watkins got hurt,” Ferry said, knocking on wood. “I was explaining that to one of the kids the other day – John didn’t play at all his freshman year and he was ready because we kept working with them and developing him and he kept staying ready.”

All things being equal heading into this offseason – which seems like a bold assumption to make – the development of Nittany Lion freshmen DJ Gordon, Caleb Dorsey and Dallion Johnson could very well be a determining factor with whatever steps the program takes forward or back in the coming months and years.

The good news for Ferry, if he were to get the job on a full-time basis, his freshman seem eager to continue their growth.

“Yesterday it was a day off,” Ferry said. “I was in here yesterday, watching film and trying to break down to Purdue, and the guys that haven’t been playing a lot themselves came in and worked out, played three-on-three and did some stuff to stay ready which is awesome.”