If you analyze the numbers, there's negligible difference between the 2012 and 2013 PSU basketball squads, and almost all of the disparities are attributable to Tim Frazier's injury. But everyone's saying this year is going to be different with six new players on the bench. Here's a few areas where their impact can make the biggest difference in the wins column.
1. Can They Score?
Many people have struggled to watch Penn State hoops the past two years because of their mind-numbing ability to miss shots. They've ranked in the 300s (not good!) of college basketball in terms of effective FG% in eacjh of Chambers' two seasons in State College. Last year they converted just 44.2% of their 2-point attempts and 29.7% of their attempts behind the 3-point line. It should go without saying, but you're not going to win many basketball games if you are inept at scoring points.
Chambers' motion offense is predicated on spacing, cuts, and driving to the basket (for only $39.99, you can know all of Coach's secrets). We've seen mixed results over two years. There has definitely been a void of high-major talent on the floor and guys have missed open looks. But we've also seen too much freedom given to high-volume players who have not been able to uphold some standard of winnable efficiency in point production.
This year, Chambers has said his frontcourt's ability to shoot 3's (Jack, Taylor) is going to help even further space the floor by drawing opposing 5's away from the basket, opening up driving lanes for Frazier, Newbill, Travis, etc. This could definitely be valuable in theory, but Taylor and Jack have to greatly improve their percentages from a year ago.
This unit's efficiency is really going to come down to Frazier and Newbill establishing their chemistry within the offense and the supporting pieces showing the ability to score when given the opportunity. Ross Travis stepping up as a reliable third option would be an added bonus, as would Allen Roberts/John Johnson/Graham Woodward providing competent three-point shooting.
2. Can They Stop Fouling?
If you haven't heard yet, the NCAA officiating committee plans to make an impact on the beauty of the game with some rule changes. They want to eliminate the hand-checking and harassing of ball-handlers to presumably increase scoring in games.
This is not good news for a Penn State defense that has had a heck of a hard time laying off their opponents in recent years. The Lions averaged 22 fouls a game to go along with 27 foulouts last year while letting opponents attempt free throws at a 51.3 rate (342nd in the country). It was even worse in conference play as Big Ten foes attempted at least 25 free throws in 11 of the 19 conference games in 2013. With stricter rules on contact in a league as physical as the Big Ten, the Lions need to be extra cautious, especially with a thin frontcourt.
The Lions have been doing different drills in practice this year to prepare for the changes, including a defensive slides drill with towels to try to break hand-checking habits. Chambers also stated that they have eliminated some of their charging drills that are now ineffective with the new officiating.
There is ample athleticism in the backcourt to be able to stop dribble penetration with their feet instead of their hands, but a lack of size on the interior could make things difficult. There also needs to be contained 'ATTITUDE' efforts, because reckless diving is bound to be whistled. If the Lions aren't able to stop their fouling habits, this team will continue to struggle to win games.
3. Are The Freshmen For Real?
As we've outlined before, Chambers has completely overhauled the roster from the DeChellis era. It's a bit unrealistic to demand the program to win right away, even though Chambers now has 'his' players. The Big Ten is too competitive to win with freshmen that are not of the Top-100, future-NBAers variety.
But in many ways, Chambers' 2013 recruiting class could make-or-break his tenure as Penn State head coach. These four young men are the core of his rebuilding efforts. His staff spent 18 months since the day they arrived at Penn State focusing on making this class great. The journey to eventually secure these four players had its highs, its lows, and the Brandon Austin debacle. But now that they've all arrived in State College, they are the ones that will be leaned upon the most to turn around the program in the next 2-3 years.
On paper, there's not much that differentiates this group from any other class in the last 10 or so years of internet-age recruiting. But this bunch must prove themselves different on the floor for the future of this program. Generally true freshmen are shielded from scrutiny because of their immaturity and inexperience. However, the players that are special show they belong from the beginning. Geary Claxton, Jamelle Cornley, and Talor Battle are great examples of those kind of players.
One or two of these guys in this class needs to emerge into a potential all-conference player. At the very least, these four guys need to show they can hang in the Big Ten. They are all stepping into good situations where they have the opportunity to earn meaningful minutes, but they won't be counted on as starters except in case of injuries. The staff can't afford to absorb more recruiting misses like Akosa Maduegbunam and survive the long-term. If the freshmen contribute this season, not only will they greatly improve Penn State's bench this year, they will offer a solid foundation for the future.