Don't look now, but basketball season is upon us. I promised myself I wasn't going to ignore it until January like years past, so instead you're getting these hastily comprised posts just under the wire of the season opener.
I already discussed what Penn State has to replace, what they return, and what they have coming in. So in this edition we'll put it all together and I'll take a stab at looking into the future to see how far this team can go. First let's look at the schedule.
I'm not going to go through each opponent for you. I don't have the time, and besides, it's already been done. I suggest you go read the breakdown of the schedule by Battle Does It Again (formerly Crispin and Cream.) I'll just go over the bullet points from what I've read there and around the interwebs.
Is the out of conference schedule manageable? Yes. Is it more difficult than last year? Yes. Is it good enough to get this team in the NCAA tournament. Maybe. There are no obvious clunkers like New Jersey Institute of Technology which killed Penn State's chances last year, but there are no world beaters either. The Nittany Lion's will have limited opportunities to prove themselves against tournament caliber competition. The Charleston Classic should be a much better tournament than the Philly Classic last year, but Penn State can't sleep in the early rounds of the tournament. They have to beat UNC-Wilmington in order to assure a game against an RPI boosting team in the later games. Otherwise Penn State will just come home with a loss and a couple of wins against teams nobody cares about.
The other opportunity to raise some eyebrows will come against the ACC. State draws Virginia in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge this year. The Cavaliers are going through some transition in coaching and players, so it's a game Penn State should have a good chance of winning. And just by virtue of playing in the ACC you know Virginia's RPI will end up under 150. The other ACC opponent will be Virginia Tech in part one of a two part series between these teams. Again, not a team predicted to do a ton of damage this year, but they play in the ACC so it's a chance to boost the RPI. Then of course, Penn State wraps up the two game series with Temple in Philadelphia. Temple isn't what they used to be, but they are always a solid team right in the thick of the bubble come tournament time. And they beat us last year.
Penn State is somewhat unfortunate this year in that they get the toughest of conference schedules. Iowa and Indiana, two teams projected to finish in the bottom half of the conference, only show up on the schedule once. Just about everyone in the conference is returning a lot of talent as well as bringing in some highly talented freshmen. Repeating their fourth place finish from last year will be a tall task.
So enough about the schedule. Let's talk about the players.In the simplest of terms, Penn State has to replace Jamelle Cornley, Stanley Pringle, and Danny Morrissey. That's an undersized, but very tough and very good forward, a speedy guard with a killer three point shot, and a role player that could hit a three point shot but wasn't the best defender.
Penn State will look to replace these three guys on the roster with three forwards (Oliver, Edwards, and Borovnjak) and two guards (Frazier and Marshall). Just by sheer numbers, Penn State should have more depth than they did a year ago even though Edwards will miss the first month with an MCL tear and Marshall may very well redshirt. This should give Ed more options to work with in mixing and matching lineups. And more bodies down low should allow the players to be a little more aggressive and physical on defense. But don't go getting all excited just yet.
The big void I see on this team is leadership. Yeah, there's Talor Battle, and he's fantastic, but who else is going to step up and lead this team when Talor has an off night. Teams are going to be playing "Battle Rules" this year where five guys swarm on the junior point guard every time he gets the ball. Who else is going to step up and say, "Give me the ball and watch me score!" Cornley could do that last year. Pringle could do it at times. To date, nobody else on this team has shown the willingness or the ability to take that ball when the game is on the line and will it into the basket. I'll be looking for that person this year.
Putting It All Together
It's tempting to get wrapped up in what this team did in that magical run through the NIT and think things are only looking up. It's tempting to downplay players like Cornley and Pringle and what they meant to this team while looking at the freshmen talent as an upgrade. While guys like Frazier and Edwards may one day go down as some of the greatest Penn State players of all time, for now they're still freshmen. They have to be told where to stand and when to run. They have to go through the reality shock that they are no longer by far the superior athlete on the court. They have no idea what it's like to go through a brutally physical Big Ten schedule night after night.
So for these reasons, I'm holding back my expectations for this team. I think they will play themselves into a good team by the end of the year. I think they will be very entertaining to watch, and I think they will win a lot of basketball games. But I see a team that lost half of their scoring and rebounding from last year. I see a team with no senior leadership. I see a team starting two guys in the frontcourt that haven't really shown me much to date. And I see a team hoping to get major contributions from some true freshmen. They are a team that has to compete in arguably the second toughest conference in the country where just about every team returns a lot of talent in addition to bringing in new talent. I don't like those odds.
I'll say Penn State goes 8-4 through the non-conference schedule. They'll drop one in the Charleston Classic. Then they'll lose to Temple and Virginia because those games are on the road. Then I say they gak up a game they should win somewhere along the line due to the lack of experience.
As far as the conference record goes, I think this has the look of a seven win conference team which would put them right around 7th or 8th place in Big Ten. That would put them right around 15-15. I think the NCAA tournament is out of the question, but based on RPI and their performance last year (on the court and in ticket sales) they will get an invite to play in the NIT again.
You can rip me if you want, and nobody hopes I'm undervaluing this team more than I do. But I think we should expect a step back this year. Any kind of post season action should be seen as a success for this program which is clearly in a rebuilding phase. If this prediction comes to fruition and the team takes a step back, there will undoubtedly be people stupidly calling for Ed's head on a platter. But look out for this team in 2010-2011. The Big Ten should come back to the field a little bit while Penn State returns everyone and adds Taran Buie. It's NCAA tournament or bust in 2011.