After four abysmal seasons, the Lions showed sparks of life in head coach Ed DeChellis' second season. The Lions finished the regular season 15-15 with six wins in the Big Ten equaling all the Big Ten wins from the previous three years combined. The Nittany Lions earned their first post season birth since 2001 when they advanced to the third round of the NCAA tournament. But unfortunately the Lions lost to Rutgers in the first round of the NIT.
Thanks for the Memories
The only loss from last year's team is forward Travis Parker. Parker was a streaky player who often decided whether Penn State would win or lose. When Parker shot well the Lions usually won. When he was off the Lions usually lost. But his leadership will be missed as much as his 12.2 ppg and his 5.6 rpg. Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, this is all they have to worry about replacing as everyone else from last year's NIT team returns.
Travis Parker off to pursue a promising basketball career in Europe
Danny Morrissey returns to the team at guard after redshirting last year to recover from a knee injury. In his freshman season of 2004-2005 Morrissey was fifth on the team with a 7.7 scoring average and added 2.5 rpg. Morrisey started the last six games of his freshman year and averaged over 10 points per game in that stretch.
Andrew Jones joins the team as a true freshman and figures to battle for playing time right away. With a lack of a true big man in the middle, Jones will see some time there as he stands 6'8" and weighs 225 lbs. His organized basketball resume is pretty short. His scoring skills need some development, but he can contribute in rebounding and playing defense right away.
David "DJ" Jackson should also see some playing time at small forward as a true freshman this year. He has an impressive high school resume averaging 20.5 ppg, 10.5 rpg, and 2.5 apg as a senior. Jackson was a two time AP Pennsylvania All State selection in high school. DJ needs to show a little more discipline though, as he recorded 4 personal fouls and 3 turnovers in the exhibition game against Shippensburg in only 11 minutes.
Adam Highberger fills out the 16 man roster as a walk-on. The 6'2" guard had an impressive high school resume as a four year starter with a record of 57-5 in his junior and senior seasons. In his senior year he averaged 20.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, and 8.7 apg. Having just joined the team this fall, Highberger only saw five minutes of action in the exhibition games.
Geary Claxton is unquestionably the best weapon the Lions have. Claxton is the second leading scorer returning in the Big Ten this season averaging 15.2 ppg a year ago. Claxton has the size and speed to create mismatch problems for a lot of teams. Try to guard him with a guard or small forward and he will post you up. Put a big man on him and he will break you down on the perimeter. Several publications have named him a first team All Big Ten player.
Jamelle Cornley was elected the Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season and looks to build on that success for his sophomore campaign. Cornley along with Claxton will make up one of the most formidable front courts in the league.
Jamelle Cornley is going to get more attention this year
Milos Bogetic bulked up another 10 lbs since last season and hopes to contribute more this year. After averaging 3.7 points and 2.5 rebounds per game last year, Bogetic has averaged 8.0 ppg and 4.0 rpg in Penn State's two exhibition games. Brandon Hassell and Joonas Suotamo will probably rotate the five position with Bogetic unless one of them can establish themselves as the dominant player.
Joonas Suotamo brings a European flavor to the Lions. Like most European big men, he has lead shoes, but he will crash the boards and get his points on offensive rebounds. He's bulked up 15 pounds since last season and looks more comfortable with the system each game.
Brandon Hassell is the oldest of the three centers. He has also grown an inch since last season. Last season he averaged 1.7 ppg and 1.7 rpg. He started the first seven games last year before losing the job to Cornley. But DeChellis says he has shown improvement in the off season. Hassell got considerable playing time in the preseason exhibition games and averaged 8 ppg and 4 rpg.
Senior Ben Luber returns to handle the point guard duties this season. He averaged 7.5 ppg and 4.4 assists last season. He's also dangerous from the 3-point line making almost 45% of his 87 attempts from behind the arch last year.
Opposite Luber at the Two Guard is senior David "Mooch" Jackson. Jackson started every game last year averaging 6.7 points and 2.9 assists per game. Jackson is going to be pushed by Danny Morrissey who is looking to regain his starting job as he shakes off the rust of sitting out last season.
Junior Mike Walker will be the spark coming off the bench. He looked great in the preseason games averaging 8.5 ppg, 4.5 apg, and 2.5 rpg.
What's to Like
This is a young team that made the NIT last year. Now they are one of the more experienced teams in the Big Ten and have even bigger expectations. The duo of Claxton and Cornley will be one of the better front courts in the league. The return of Danny Morrissey is going to provide some hustle and boost scoring. Luber, Morrissey, and Walker are all three good players that gives Penn State the option of going with a three guard rotation which plays to Ed DeChellis' up tempo pressing style. This could provide some mismatch problems for slower teams.
Last season there were a lot of new faces and it took several weeks before the players admitted they were starting to feel like a team. Now they openly admit they are probably a month ahead of where they were last year at this time.
A weak out of conference schedule should net this team 10 or 12 wins before the start of Big Ten play.
Things the make you go hmmmm...
They lack a dominant big man and will most likely fill the five spot with a rotation of Hassell, Bogetic, and Suotamo. Some big men, like Ohio State's seven foot freshman phenom Greg Oden, are going to create problems. Against teams like this Penn State is going to have to fall back into a zone defense leaving them vulnerable to good outside shooters.
Last year the Lions killed themselves with turnovers and poor defense. These bugs plagued them again in their preseason loss to Shippensburg. The Lions had 20 turnovers in that game and only forced 13.
Geary Claxton broke his hand in the preseason game against Edinboro. He is expected to be out until the beginning of December or maybe longer. Suddenly those early games the Lions were hoping to use to rack up wins are looking tougher than before. The team is going to have to rally and learn how to play without him. On the plus side, this will get other players more touches and playing time and may help them as a team later in the season.
Seton Hall, St. Joe's, Georgia Tech, and Bucknell are going to be tough games, but this team can win 10 games before the conference schedule starts. The Lions are fortunate they only play Michigan State once this year and it's a home. They are unfortunate they only get to play Minnesota once. I'm going to say they go 9-7 in Big Ten play for an overall record of 19-9. If Cornley avoids the sophomore slump, Morrissey returns and improves from his 2005 form, and someone steps up to be a respectable force at center, this team could be pretty special and finish near the top of the Big Ten. I don't see any reason why this team can't go dancing for the first time since 2001.
Guys (and gals) I have to tell you I don't get to see many Penn State basketball games on television here in Philadelphia. Hopefully if the team is respectable this year they will put a few games on ESPN, but most of what you are going to read here about the Penn State basketball games is going to come from the GoPSU website and local online newspapers. I'm not going to be able to break down games much outside of statistics. If anyone reading this is interested in taking a more active role in this blog to help cover the basketball team, please email me and let's talk.