Better late than never, it's time for the award-winning Big Ten basketball previews! Rather than alphabetical order like last year, these will instead be in order of projected finish in conference play, from worst to first. That way, the entire internet will be on the edge of their seat for weeks waiting for all the dramatic reveals, and I can win another award.
12th place: Penn St. Nittany Lions
What did they do last year? Went 19-15 (9-9), won three games in the Big Ten tournament to sneak into the NCAAs (including a 36-33 win over Wisconsin that didn't do any favors for the national reputation of the conference), then lost a heart breaker to Temple in the first round of the tournament.
Who'd they lose from last year? Oh, where to start. 2,000 point scorer and best player in modern school history Talor Battle is gone. Battle was a bit of a chucker and occasionally shot Penn State out of games, but he was also an incredibly dangerous scorer and had the potential to take over at any time. His presence as the number one option also freed things up for wing scorers Jeff Brooks (13 points per game) and David Jackson (10 points per game), and both of those guys have graduated. Big man Andrew Jones has also graduated, and while Jones was nothing special (6 points and 5 boards in 30 minutes per game), there's very little behind him (as we'll soon discuss.) Making matters worse, freshman guard Taran Buie (Battle's half-brother) has transferred after running afoul of the coaching staff and the State College authorities. Off the court issues aside, Buie was a talented prospect and could have helped out this year.
The biggest loss for Penn State though was head coach Ed DeChellis, who resigned to take the head coaching job at Navy. Leaving the Big Ten for the Patriot League and a substantial pay cut doesn't make a lot of sense on paper, but from what I gather DeChellis didn't feel like he had the support of the Penn State administration and thought it was only a matter of time before he was fired, so he just beat them to the punch and headed for the greener pastures of lower stress and higher job security at Navy. Given that down the stretch of last season, PSU's basketball team got kicked out of their practice facility for events like Bon Jovi concerts and Dance Marathons, it's hard to argue with DeChellis' decision.
So who's their new coach? Pat Chambers, formerly the head man at Boston University. Chambers did a good job in his brief stretch at BU, going 42-28 and making the NCAA tournament last year, but he was hired more because of his previous success at recruiting in talent-rich Philadelphia while an assistant at Villanova.
On paper, this is a good hire: Chambers is young (just 39), has had a bit of success as a head coach and as a recruiter, and he seems to have excited Penn State basketball fans. That said, winning at Penn State is an uphill battle.The basketball team already lives in the gigantic shadow of the football team, and with varsity hockey starting up next winter, it will be even harder for the basketball team to get attention, especially due to how bad the team figures to be this season.
Ok, just how bad will Penn State be this year? Really bad. On paper, this is the worst Big Ten team since 2008-09 Indiana. The only good player from last year's team who returns is junior Tim Frazier, a pass first point guard. Frazier is lightning quick and excellent at getting to the rim, but he's not a great shooter (46.4 eFG% with low usage). He is a good passer (5 assists to 2.4 turnovers per game), but his shooting will have to improve a lot since he doesn't have good scorers to pass to like he did last year.
Tell me more about the rest of the returning roster: It's ugly. The leading returning scorer (at a whole 1.8 points per game) besides Frazier is sophomore Jermaine Marshall, and he's already been suspended indefinitely for the nebulous violation of team rules. The only senior is guard Cammeron Woodyard, who put up a historically inept shooting line last year, hitting 32% of his twos and 19% of his threes while playing 8 minutes a game. Then there's junior forward Billy Oliver, who's like a worse shooting, worse rebounding Vince Scott. Yeah. Also, there's some big man named Sasa Borovnjak who red-shirted last year after an ACL injury and barely saw the court two years ago as a freshman.
Do they at least have some decent freshmen? Yes. Guard Trey Lewis, who was runner-up for Mr. Basketball in Ohio last year despite only a two-star Rivals rating, should contribute right away. Three star big man Peter Alexis, who certainly has Big Ten size at 6'11, 260 pounds, also figures to start. Wing Ross Travis, another three star recruit who was the best high school player in Minnesota last year, may start as well. A guy who red-shirted last year, freshman Jon Graham, also figures to play, but if he wasn't good enough to even play last year given how badly PSU needed a backup big, he's probably not very good. There's also JUCO transfer guard Matt Glover, and scrawny 6'11 forward Patrick Ackerman, who is expected to red-shirt.
So the cupboard isn't completely bare for Chambers, but this team has far too much youth and not nearly enough talent to be competitive in the Big Ten. Unless you've got future NBA players, it's nearly impossible to win in the Big Ten running out mostly freshmen, and I don't think any of the aforementioned freshmen are on NBA scouts' radar. 2013-14 is about the earliest Penn State could realistically get back to the tournament.
When does Northwestern play them? In Evanston on New Years Day, and in State College on February 25th. While history has taught us that no game against Penn State is easy, it's hard to see Northwestern losing to this crew at home. However, I'm already terrified of that road game in late February, that one could prove to be a bubble burster for NU.
Overall record prediction? The non-conference schedule is pretty easy (besides a neutral court game against Kentucky that will be an ass-kicking of historic proportions), but it's hard to give this team too many automatic wins. I'd say somewhere between 5-7 and 7-5 going into conference play. During Big Ten season, this team will take its lumps, but unless Chambers proves to be a disaster they'll keep playing hard and win a couple of league games at home. I'll say 8-22 (2-16) for their final record.