Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports
And by that I mean Penn State is going to the NIT. And who knows, maybe we'll win it.
I like Bill. He's a good guy. But he's also a homer, and even he has to admit that his prediction--that Penn State will go from a 2-conference-win team to one that makes the jump to the Big Dance--is based more on hope and emotion than it is on real facts and analysis.
I'll make some concessions here: Yes, the Big Ten will be weaker. Yes, Penn State will be (much, much) deeper and significantly more experienced. Yes, the return of Tim Frazier and the addition of John Johnson will turn the backcourt from a periliously shallow position to one of considerable depth, especially considering that Geno Thorpe will also enter the rotation. There's reasons for optimism, and even reason to expect that Penn State will make a significant jump forward next year, just as Ed DeChellis' last team made a quantum leap from Big Ten cellar-dwellars to surprise tourney team.
But let's not set the bar too high: A good season for Pat Chambers' crew wouldn't be making the leap from "one of the worst Big Ten teams in recent memory" not just to "potential bubble team", but "last four in"; it'd be eking out 6 or 7 or maybe, if we're really lucky, 8 conference wins, and heading to the NIT with our heads held high.
Penn State's been competitive enough over the past few weeks that we're forgetting just how bad this team has played at times, compared to their brethren in the deepest and strongest conference in college basketball. This team ranks 9th or lower in the conference in every single statistic except for rebounding and free throw shooting. They're worst in shooting percentage, and worst in opponent's shooting percentage. Last in three point shooting, and second to last in three point defense. Second to last in turnover margin and dead last in assists/turnover. Getting Tim Frazier back will be huge, but it won't be a panacea to all this team's ills, and it won't prevent a new hole from opening up.
Tim Frazier is a great player, but when you look around the Big Ten, you see a whole lot of Tim Fraziers. Hell, you see a whole lot of Tim Frazier's in the recruiting classes those teams will be bringing in. And while Pat Chambers' first real, full recruiting class is certainly one of the best Penn State's ever signed, it's simply not filled with the kind of players who can jump in and compete in this conference from day one. Talor Battle couldn't do that--assuming Geno Thorpe or Graham Woodward can is wishful thinking to an insane degree.
But look, even without those guys making a huge impact, the backcourt won't be a problem next year. Penn State will be going with a three-guard lineup only partly out of necessity--between Frazier, D.J. Newbill, Jermaine Marshall, Johnson, Thorpe, and Woodward, there's a whole lot of talent, probably more than Penn State's ever had there. Even if none of those guys play at anywhere near the level of the Aaron Crafts, Trey Burkes, Tim Hardaway Jrs, or Victor Oladipos of the conference, as a group, that'll probably be one of the top 5 backcourts in the conference..
But as good as that backcourt will be, the frontcourt will be even worse. What will hold this team back and keep them from winning about a half-dozen winnable games, is the stunning lack of both depth and talent among players taller than 6'4.
Why has Penn State been so good these past few weeks? Because Sasa Borovnjak has come out of absolutely nowhere to play like a real, Big Ten-caliber big man. He's done it quietly, too, showing an impressive dexterity around the rim, soft hands, and the sense to know where he belongs on the low block. He hasn't grabbed too many rebounds, or blocked many shots, but he's provided a thoroughly necessary post presence for an otherwise far too perimeter-oriented team. (And let's not forget that in beating Michigan, Penn State had to shoot an unsustainable--especially for this team--10/20 from downtown).
It's not all Pat Chambers' fault that Sasa will be leaving this year, despite his remaining year of eligibility. Before the tail end of this season, he'd been a servicable enough player, but an eminently replaceable one. It probably wasn't solely Chambers' decision, anyway--Sasa will have graduated, and it's not hard to imagine he'd prefer to go back home to Serbia to start his life after basketball. But it's not like this was a loss we were ruing a month ago--if Sasa had to go to make room for a new recruit, well, so be it, and best of luck to him with the rest of his life. But now, I'm having trouble considering just how screwed this team will be without Sasa next year--and that's not a sentence I thought I'd ever be writing.
Another sentence I didn't think I'd be writing is this one: Jon Graham has regressed in the past year. He's got a prototypical big man's body, and in watching his immense struggles this year, we see what a waste of that body he's made. I used to think Andrew Jones had bad hands, then I watched entry pass after entry pass clank off Graham's. And for a guy who simply doesn't take shots outside of lay-ups, for him to be shooting .333 is an absolute travesty. At least he's improved on the free throw shooting, and his low-post defense is still a plus attribute. But it's going to be really hard to be a .500 team in the Big Ten when Jon Graham isn't just your top Big Man, but your only Big Man.
Brandon Taylor prefers to stay on the perimeter. Ross Travis has length and size, and is an excellent defender against forwards and guards, but isn't a post player (or, really, an offensive threat at all). They're both true forwards, guys who Penn State can live with--and hell, even excel with, when they're on (when Travis isn't taking jump shots/when Taylor is making his)--at the four, but who'll be overmatched at the 5 against pretty much any conference foe.
There's really nothing else there--unless with a wink and a nudge, Pat Ackerman or Alan Wisniewski take a cue from Peter Alexis and decide they'd really rather get some playing time elsewhere, thank you very much. Those two haven't shown anything in the scant playing time they've received, and the only other option is incoming freshman Julian Moore, who's generously listed at 215 pounds on a 6'9 frame and didn't receive any high-major interest beyond Penn State. He could be a piece for Pat Chambers down the line, but by default, he may end up being your backup center, and any 6'9, 215-pound freshmen are going to have a hell of a time matching up against the big men at Ohio State or Indiana or Michigan State or Wisconsin, even if Luke Zeller and Deshaun Thomas and Adreian Payne aren't there.
Those schools can reload, not rebuild. Hell, look at how surprising it is that Purdue and Illinois and Minnesota, to a lesser extent, have struggled so mightily this year. Those are teams we can expect to make a big jump forward next year simply because of the precedent they've set. Michigan and Indiana might come back to the pack, but the Boilermakers and Illini and Gophers are going to jump up into it, too. I'm pretty sure we'll be better than Northwestern and Nebraska next year, but other than that? There's a whole lot of parity, but we're going to need a whole hell of a lot to go right to even dream of the dance, and when was the last time that happened for Penn State basketball?
Yes, Pat Chambers had astounding success using a four-guard lineup when he was an assistant at Villanova. He likes to run and gun and shoot the three, and his team next year will be infinitely better suited to do just that.
But here's the thing--three of those four guards were Allan Ray, Randy Foye, and Kyle Lowry. All three made the NBA, and the latter two are in the midst of double-digit-scoring seasons. The big man was Dante Cunningham. He's in the NBA, too. If you're going to succeed with that kind of a lineup, you need that kind of talent.
The saddest fact of all? The Big Ten won't present half as many easy wins for Penn State as the Big East did for that Nova squad. Hell, I'll be surprised if any wins come too easy for this Penn State team next year.
They'll come, to be sure, and the future will never be brighter for the Nits, but the Lions just aren't set to make as improbable a jump as any we've ever seen.