We've handed out the report cards, so now there's just one thing left to do - answer some of the burning questions facing Penn State heading into year four of the Pat Chambers era. Let's dive right in:
1. What was the most pleasant surprise of 2013-14?
Devon Edwards: I mean, we beat Ohio State twice, so it has to be that, right? D.J. Newbill took that step towards becoming one of the Big Ten's best players, Donovon Jack and Brandon Taylor showed stretches of competence, and Jordan Dickerson looked like a game changer on defense, but if you told me before the season that we'd get salty Buckeye tears from Albert Breer? Well, I might have expected it, but not if you also told me that wins over Ohio State would make up fully 1/3 of our Big Ten victories. We made Aaron Craft our bitch, and nothing--aside from making a miracle run through the Big Ten tournament and getting the auto-bid--would have been sweeter than that in 2014.
Bill DiFilippo: Taking down Ohio State twice, easily. Especially the first game, where Penn State came in losers of six of their last seven. While the Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes close, they thoroughly outclassed them for much of the game. Against Ohio State at home, it was pretty similar, and while the game seemed more evenly contested, it was still a surprise win. I mean, two wins in one year against Ohio State in basketball? Amazing. The only thing that would have been better would be if the Buckeyes were required to change the Schottenstein Center to the Newbill Center.
Matt de Bear: I'm not sure how it's anything other than sweeping the season series against Ohio State. Sure, it wasn't one of Thad Matta's better teams, but they made the tournament, and it opened up so many Aaron Craft jokes.
Tim Aydin: The obvious answer of course, is sweeping Ohio State. The second most pleasant surprise was the incredible rally at Indiana down 11 with a little less than 3:00 to play. It was almost like the exact opposite of the choke job against Princeton, plus we got to read a bunch of 'Tom Crean cuts down the nets' jokes on Twitter afterwards (such jokes never get old, btw).
Chad Markulics: The beginning of the season feels like it happened years ago, but remember when the Nittany Lions were 6-1 and averaging 83 points a game? That was the biggest and most pleasant surprise - that watching Penn State basketball was exceedingly fun, if only for a few weeks. And yes, Newbill destroying Ohio State twice in one season will be the everlasting positive image from this year, though I'm not sure how much of a surprise the second win was (ok it was a pretty big deal, I just wanted to break the monotony of the responses to this question).
2. What was the biggest disappointment?
Devon: I understand now that I might have been overly optimistic in expecting that Tim Frazier would come back and pick up right where he left off, but the guy who returned in 2014 was a shell of the guy who once was a very legitimate contender for Big Ten player of the year. It wasn't just that Frazier lacked the explosiveness or speed, or even that he was particularly rusty, he just seemed to lack the drive that had made him a very bright spot on some very bad teams. I've gotten into trouble questioning players' drive and passion in the past, but Frazier just seemed at times to be a different guy, mentally, than he had been in the past, even as he put up similar numbers. That failure to live up to the hype, and join with Newbill to make one of the best backcourts in the country, more than anything else, is probably why Penn State failed to live up to expectations last year. And he was still a 15-point, 5-assist, 5-rebound guy!
Bill: The broad answer is that Penn State didn't make at least the NIT. That answer has many sub-answers, little things that contribute to the overall answer. Tim Frazier coming back and looking completely lost at times. Brandon Taylor and Ross Travis taking steps forward, but not big steps forward. Donovon Jack falling off the face of the earth. John Johnson and Jordan Dickerson not making huge impacts. Pat Chambers didn't always make the best adjustments in-game. Really, you can find a gripe with everyone not named D.J. Newbill.
Matt: The 0-6 start to the Big 10 season. Not only did PSU drop 6 straight games, they found a way to lose 3 very winnable games, often in spectacular fashion. Even if you go 2-1 in those close games, suddenly the overall record looks better, and who knows where the season goes from there with a little bit of confidence and momentum.
Tim: Tim Frazier. At this point, I am likely repeating what everyone else in the roundtable is saying about how he seemed a step slower and not quite as confident and sure of himself as he was pre-injury. Indiana game aside, he seemed to have lost that 'clutch' factor. The Princeton game last December epotimized my thoughts as he bricked an ill-advised three-point shot in regulation, missed a critical free throw and later, bricked a layup (which he would've made 9 times out of 10) that would have forced a second overtime.
Chad: God, that Return to Rec game really deflated the entire season, didn't it? Not that beating Princeton would have changed Penn State's eventual fate in and of itself, but losing that game changed something deep within the squad. It was the first time the team had the entire campus' eyes on them under Chambers and to lose in fashion so typical of Penn State basketball teams of old created a self-fulfilling prophecy that I'm not sure even the best of coaches could've avoided. Their confidence went by the wayside and that 16-point second half versus Michigan State on New Year's Eve pretty much confirmed that this wasn't gonna be the year to get over that hump.
3. Aside from D.J. Newbill, who is the most important player on next year's roster?
Devon: The most important thing is finding someone who's comfortable handling the ball, freeing Newbill to play the off-guard. If none of Garner, Foster, Washington, or Thorpe can hold down PG duties, then Penn State's losing a dominant 2 and gaining a good-but-flawed 1, and that throws the whole system out of whack. But since none of those guys, specifically, can be pointed to as "the guy," then it's Brandon Taylor. If Taylor can become a more complete second option--both in the pick-and-pop and the low post--that will go a long way to gaining the sort of consistency this year's team lacked. It'll also help keep Jordan Dickerson, and his superlative defense, on the court without having to give up too much offensively in the paint. Penn State might be deep at guard, but going big can be a secret weapon for the Lions next year if Taylor takes that next step.
Bill: Ugh, I dunno. You can argue any of like five or six guys. I think I'll go with Donovon Jack. If he's able to find his destiny as a stretch-4 who is a devastating shot blocker, Penn State will have one of the craziest front courts in the conference. A Jack/Dickerson 4/5 combo would do a fantastic job protecting the rim and making it hard for opponents to do much of anything in the paint. He also needs to develop some kind of a low post game, and put on like 20 lbs for rebounding. If he does all of that, and doesn't perpetually look like a scared puppy, he'll be fine. If not, it'll be another season of "what if?" from Jack, and for a guy who needs to step up and be a leader, that's not acceptable.
Matt: John Johnson. Newbill is going to be keyed on by every defense next season, which should open up plenty of opportunities for someone else in the backcourt. Johnson showed an ability to get to the basket at ease, but also a penchant to fall in love with 23 foot fade away jumpers. If he uses the former much more, the latter will come easier, and PSU will need those points.
Tim: If you're going make me pick one, I suppose Jordan Dickerson. As I stated in my report card that I wrote for him, he is very capable of becoming a shot-blocking/rebounding machine if he can put such performances together on a consistent basis. If he actually does so, it will go a long way towards having that ever-so-elusive post presence we seem to find ourselves asking about every offseason.
Chad: I'm with Devon - Brandon Taylor has to be the guy who fills that second scorer role. It's not totally out of the question for a player who averaged 9.2 ppg last year and made some significant strides in his second year. If he continues on his current statistical trajectory, we're talking about a 12 ppg, 6 rpg per game performer. I have a sneaky feeling he'll finally be able to find a consistent three-point stroke as well - Taylor improved on his 3pt% by ~4% from his first season and shot 88% from the foul line in 2014, and that's enough of a sign for me to think that he can become a more reliable marksman. That said, I'll be upset if he doesn't use his physical inside play against smaller defenders whenever possible.
4. Penn State will have four freshmen on next season's roster - two true freshmen and two redshirts - which of them do you see making the biggest impact?
Devon: I'm probably not the guy to answer this--I don't really pay much attention to hoops recruiting, and I'm not sure any of them will be more than a Geno Thorpe, 10-minutes-a-game-and-we're-wondering-why-that's-it kind of guy next year. If Devin Foster is off the table, then Shep Garner seems like the obvious answer and I have no reason to suggest it'll be anyone else.
Bill: It's Shep Garner. There's a legit chance he starts at point guard from day one, and if not, he's going to eventually take over the starting spot, in all likelihood. It's not like Penn State could use a point guard to develop and play when their starter needs a break - the team legitimately doesn't have a pure point guard right now. The closest thing to a pure one is Garner, and after eschewing offers from schools like Florida and Memphis, he needs to live up to the hype. I think he will. But I'm biased.
Matt: It has to be Garner. There is no true point guard on the roster as it stands now, and PSU cannot rely on Newbill to run the point and score. Garner not only has the talent to make an immediate impact, but there should be plenty of opportunities for him to do just that.
Tim: Shep Garner is the odds-on favorite in this category (for now). He is the more heralded of the two incoming freshmen while Payton Banks has yet to play a game, and Julian Moore needs to show that he can hold his own down low (hopefully an offseason of bulking up works out for him). Shep will be vying for the starting point guard spot and will at the very least, be one of the first guys off the bench to start next season. He and Devin Foster will be the only true point guards on the roster, so expect to see the most from him, especially given the mass amount of hype he's bringing into Happy Valley.
Chad: From what I can gather, there seems so be some disagreement over whether or not Garner is a point guard. Even if he isn't, I don't know that Chambers' vision for Penn State basketball requires the use of a true point guard considering the amount of combo guards he's been recruiting since his arrival. While I do agree that Garner is the likeliest of the freshmen to make an early impact, Julian Moore is perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch. The kid runs the floor like a gazelle and is far and away the most athletic player on the roster. If by some miracle his development is ahead of schedule, Penn State could have three of the better shot-blockers in the B1G on their roster.
5. What are your way-too-early expectations for 2014-15?
Devon: I think next year is a step back, only because the void at the point is looming pretty large right now. Penn State's offense was stagnant and boring throughout the Big Ten slate this season, and that was with Tim Frazier, an experienced and former all-conference player running it. If Penn State can't run--and they seemingly abandoned that as a strategy after the preseason this this--I don't know that they'll be able to run set plays that aren't iso-Newbill; there will be times when he's the only real slasher on the floor and the rest of the team isn't good enough at moving without the ball to make that effective. Take that regression, add in the progression of Taylor, Jack, Dickerson, Thorpe, and hopefully John Johnson--who is going to be a pretty damn important player next year--and the final results ought to be similar to this year. 9 wins seems like the upper limit to me, with 6 or 7 probably the most likely outcome.
Bill: I honestly have zero idea what to expect from this team. I don't think Penn State's a Tournament team. NIT? CBI? Four conference wins? Four total wins? I have no clue. Really, my only expectation is that D.J. Newbill will be a First Team All-Big Ten selection and a legit candidate for conference player of the year. But other than that, I have no idea.
Matt: Without seeing the schedule, especially out of conference, I would expect a year similar to 2013-14, but that could be overly optimistic. Newbill will be one of the top guards in the Big 10, but there are so many unknowns with the rest of the roster. Taylor, Travis, Thorpe, Dickerson, and Jack (among others) all need to take significant steps forward. I suppose I expect at least a couple of them to do that.
Tim: Good lord, I have no clue...this team could certainly surprise everyone next year and finish with a winning record and be a fringe NCAA bubble team, but I could just as well see them finishing in the basement of the Big Ten again and losing several winnable games. I'll pass until I see the full schedule (which won't be known until sometime in August).
Chad: I'll admit, as soon as Frazier was shut down for the 2012-13 season due to his ruptured his Achilles, my expectations for 2013-14 were already too high. The NCAA tournament berth I predicted in preseason was not my finest moment (also note, Eric is a goddamned oracle), so I'd like to think I've learned my lesson. There are just too many questions right now to be completely optimistic, but I will say that the B1G (minus Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota) shouldn't be quite as treacherous as it was for the last two seasons.
6. Is Pat Chambers still the right man for the job?
Devon: Look, aside from Rokk, I'm the loudest member of the #Fiur movement, but I don't think it would necessarily have made sense to let him go now. That said: Next year has to be the year for him to prove something, doesn't it? Recruiting has stagnated, he's not bringing in particularly well-regarded assistants, and unless the results on the court improve, this seems like a sinking ship. It pains me to call for his head, because I think he's really great at everything except for coaching basketball. He's a terrific ambassador for the program, a great salesman, a solid enough recruiter--though someone who, for obvious reasons, has difficulty closing. The issue continues to be reflected in his won-lost record, that he just is going to be outcoached on any given day by any of the other coaches in the Big Ten. The team's offensive regression this year was staggering, and the same issues--like three point defense--haven't been fixed in his three years here. Pat would--and has shown that he can-- excel in a mid major program, but, well, he's yet to prove that he can hang with the Bo Ryans and John Beileins and even the Tim Mileses of the conference. Penn State's been spending big bucks to boost almost every other program. If Pat doesn't show improvement next year, it'll be time to move on.
Bill: I love Pat Chambers, but my patience is growing thin. I think he's working his ass off to build a program, and I think he's a great coach when it comes to preparing his guys to play. The "probably" comes in-game, where sometimes he's an awesome coach (at Indiana), and sometimes he's a brutal coach (at Siena). He needs to get consistently better at being an in-game coach. Of course, no one is perfect, but when the team is playing poorly and looks like it's completely out of ideas on what to do, that reflects on the coach. I think he deserves two more years (shit, Ed DeChellis was going to get at least one more year, and if Ed can get nine years, Pat deserves some rope), but if there's no signs of major improvement (which for Penn State isn't much, like top half of the conference or on the fringe of that because the Big Ten is awesome), I'm willing to cut the cord.
Matt: I still say yes, but it's not as emphatic as it was a year ago. This guy was dealt a terrible hand from the moment he stepped on campus, essentially punting his first 2 signing classes because of the timing of his arrival. This year's freshman class, to me, is really the first chance he had to bring in his own guys. Tim Frazier's Achilles injury a year ago put that 2012-13 season off the rails before it ever really got going, and it was pretty clear the Frazier he got back this year was not the same as the one he had his first year. With that said, while there has been progress, it is easy to see why some of the natives are getting restless with the pace of things. In game decisions, and adjustments have left me scratching my head, and you can find at least a couple games this season where that probably cost PSU a win. But this is still Penn State basketball, and short of hiring Brad Stevens, expecting an immediate turnaround just isn't in the cards. This season, and next (yes, I'll give him 5 years) are going to be crucial though.
Tim: #FiurChambres jokes aside, I'm not as high on him as I was a year ago this time. I really thought the team grossly underachieved this past season and should have at the very least, posted a winning record. Like others have said on here, some of Pat's in-game decisions have been baffling at times (even when he wasn't in the doghouse, I still recall Geno Thorpe being held out of the game's final minutes despite being one of the better players out on the court that night). While the Bucknell loss could be chalked up to the Bison just shooting out of their minds, no matter what was thrown at them, there was ZERO excuse for blowing that 20-point lead with 6:30 to play against Princeton in Rec Hall, with a sellout crowd on the verge of embracing a 9-3 team that's about to garner its 10th win heading into its final non-conference tune-up against Mt. St. Mary's. It's also baffling how the team managed to pull out those shockers against OSU (twice) and Indiana, but get swept by Illinois and lose all three games to Minnesota. And don't even get me started on that epic fail of a finish in the first meeting with Purdue.
I realize Pat didn't inherit the best of roster situations when he came in early June of 2011, and I was willing to give him a pass while he 'carefronted' and spruced up the roster more to his liking. That being said, it's Year 4, the roster is composed entirely of his own guys (I realize Ross Travis was technically an Ed DeChellis recruit, but Ed had already bolted for the Navy by the time Ross set foot on campus), and he still has yet to post a winning record. The last couple of years, we've heard plenty of hype coming from Pat himself about how close this team was to turning the corner and about his grand vision for Penn State basketball becoming a force to be reckoned with. Next season is truly a 'put up or shut up' type of year for him, especially with a new AD likely being in place by the time next season rolls around.
Chad: My day job (which, don't get me wrong, I'm thankful I have) is terribly boring. To cope, I listen to a whole bunch of podcasts, and at the moment I'm on a bit of a military history kick. On one such podcast, a lecture on strategy by the author of "Strategy: A History," Sir Lawrence Freedman, I heard something to the effect of this: strategy is only useful when you're the underdog. In context, Freedman was trying to articulate that having an advantageous amount of resources over your opponent will foil the best of plans. Of course, this type of military theory has a nice parallel to college basketball; there's a reason a 16-seed has never beaten a 1-seed, and that reason is because the Dukes and Arizonas of the world have more resources, and the biggest resource in college basketball is talent. Plain and simple.
There's a lot of quibbling about Chambers' in-game strategies or lack thereof, and for the most part I tend to think he's good enough at the B1G level. Just look at some of the late game sets he drew up against Ohio State and Indiana, or this post at umhoops.com that cited Penn State as the team with the third-highest scoring average following timeouts. Either way, that stuff pales in comparison to importance of bringing in high-level talent. Which I think Chambers is doing, or at least doing to near the best of his abilities considering the Flaming Bus of a program he's driving. As mentioned, Shep Garner had offers from much better programs than PSU. Isaiah Washington committed too early to get a fair recruiting ranking but has recently stated that other B1G schools showed interest at one point, and the lone commit in the 2015 class, Mike Watkins, will be getting quite a few letters and calls from the upper-crust of college hoops in attempts to get him to switch his allegiance away from State College. And I don't share Devon's view that recruiting has slowed down - the staff identified the 2015 class as one that is vital to their long-term success a while ago and I think you'll see quite a bit of #doworkPat this summer - he is recruiting with his best season under his belt, after all. My point is, the resources are either here or on their way.
And while I do agree that progress needs to be shown on the floor in 2014-15, I don't think it's a fireable offense to have a repeat 16-18 showing as long as the recruiting continues to trend upwards and the underclassmen develop like they should. Being over .500 sure would be nice, though.