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Chambers Must Bring Defense

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To the surprise of nobody, the men’s basketball team was picked to finish last in the media poll released at Big Ten media day last week. The understandably low expectations are a by-product from the loss of many core pieces to last year’s NCAA tournament team. It’s not often a roster is filled with this many unknowns heading into the year. The most comparable situation that stuck out in my mind was the last time this program finished their season in the NCAA tournament - 2001. Here’s what this year’s team returns from last year compared to what the 2001-2002 team returned:

01-02 31.52% 21.58% 17.27% 29.14% 21.21% 19.71% 27.35%
11-12 30.13% 19.12% 16.20% 24.35% 49.64% 42.38% 21.95%

These similar numbers are not surprising. This year’s team has an advantage in assists and steals, because Tim Frazier led last year’s team in those categories, but the production lost is essentially the same across the rest of the board. The 2002 team returned Tyler Smith, a starter, along with a couple reserves in Brandon Watkins, Jamaal Tate, and Sharif Chambliss. This year along with Frazier, there’s Oliver, Woodyard, and Marshall when he returns. Obviously a new coach throws a wrench into the near-identical comparison, but the talent level and inexperience are tough to differentiate. For the record, the 2002 team went 7-21, 3-13 in-conference with a season opening loss at home to Yale. I don't expect it to be that bad, but we can only hope. 

Some other teams in the Big Ten also have their own holes to fill, but none are bigger than PSU. Unfortunately, the potential replacements for the Nittany Lions don’t match up on paper to their heralded conference foes. The Nittany Lions five-man recruiting class ranked 11th among all incoming Big Ten classes by Rivals. The biggest shoes to fill + unheralded newcomers = last place prediction. 

Coach Chambers is facing a mountainous uphill battle this season and nobody should be upset if this team finishes last. However, all of the negativity is centered around how this team is going to score. No one has talked about the real problem with this program has had seemingly forever - defense. The reason Ed DeChellis struggled so mightily was he could not get his teams to stop the opposition. For example:

Year PPP O-PPP BT AVG P Diff OP Diff
2005-2006 1.02 1.13 1.02 0.00 -0.11
2006-2007 1.02 1.19 1.02 0.00 -0.17
2007-2008 0.98 1.12 1.01 -0.03 -0.11
2008-2009 1.00 1.04 1.01 -0.01 -0.03
2009-2010 1.01 1.08 1.03 -0.02 -0.05
2010-2011 1.08 1.10 1.07 +0.01 -0.03
Average 1.02 1.11 1.03 -0.01 -0.08
*Stats from John Gasaway at Basketball Prospectus/Big Ten Wonk 

While we all liked to joke about DeChellis' give-the-ball-to-Talor-and-clear-out offense, it actually scored at an average rate compared to the rest of the league. The defense, however, was consistently in the bottom half of the conference. When Penn State approached an average mark, they had arguably their best year under DeChellis (2009). They were fortunate that last season was an unusually efficient year for the league on the offensive end, because they laid their fair share of eggs defensively throughout the year (in 14 of their 15 losses, the Nits surrendered 1.15 PPP or more to their opponents). 

So why was the defense so bad under DeChellis? I offer this simple eyeball observation; they were soft. They didn't pressure the ball, disrupt the passing lanes, or challenge shots. KenPom's Ed DeChellis coaching profile shows the story. Under Ed, turnovers (TO%) were rarely forced while opponents converted shots at a high percentage (eFG%). Nearly every statistical component associated with defense was below average. PSU was good at protecting the boards and keeping the opponent off the free throw line, but opponents didn't need to force it in the lane with the looks they were getting.

For whatever reason, Ed couldn't get his teams to defend. I think the biggest factor was a lack of depth. I know Talor exerted more energy on offense, and I don't blame him with how many exhausting minutes he logged. Ed wasn't able to pull guys to send the 'defend-or-don't-play' message. Regardless of why though, this team has lacked toughness and discipline on defense for way too long. 

This is what Coach Chambers must bring to this program. Standards need to be set on defense and if you're not meeting them, you will not be on the floor. After watching practice a few weeks ago, it is clear the intensity and toughness has been turned up in this program. With the right attitude and commitment, this team can markedly improve defensively. Maybe not right away with how much youth is on the team, but their progress in this area will be my biggest observation during the season. 

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