Through the first thirteen games of this season, Pat Chambers' club has proven to be nothing like his first two outfits in State College. Gone are the days when fans just hoped for a 60-point performance from the Nittany Lions, but the trade-off has brought some serious concerns about this team's defensive capabilities.
How great have the Nittany Lions been offensively? How terrible have they been at defending the three? We take a look at the fundamental, advanced metrics for a little clarity on the Nittany Lions' non-conference campaign.
Before we see the numbers, it's important to compare the quality of opponents these figures were compiled against:
|Year||Non-Con Record||NC SOS||NC RPI||1-100||101-200||201+|
*Projected by RPIForecast.com
You might look at those SOS numbers and wonder why 2012 wasn't ranked higher in difficulty with nine games against Top-200 opponents. All I have to rebut that statement is the RPI sucks. But it's what matters to the NCAA committee and that's why we're using it. Overall, there's no significant differences in schedule strengths, so a straight-up comparison between non-conference numbers is apt.
Penn State's raw 1.15 points-per-possession efficiency is an astounding improvement from the last two seasons. Obviously adding a true point guard to the mix that can create for others has been a big reason for the Lions' new attack, but as we saw the last few years, open looks don't always translate into points. This roster has plenty of guys capable of getting buckets in a hurry as seven players have logged at least 15 or more points in a game.
DJ Newbill's transition back to his natural 2-guard position has paid dividends for his offensive production. His revamped shooting mechanics along with more catch-and-shoot opportunities has helped his 3P% jump from 26.7% to 42.6%. He has already made as many threes as he did last season (20) on 28 less attempts.
Another valuable addition to the Lions' offense has been the play of Donovon Jack. The low usage center generally is the fifth scoring option when he's on the floor, but he has done a great job capitalizing on his opportunities created by others. Jack is converting on 57.8% of his 2's (not bad for someone who's often criticized for not being able to finish) and 47.4% of his 3's. Too many times in the past this program has had to play essentially 4-on-5 basketball, but when Jack is on the floor, opposing defenses can't always afford to slack off on him to give extra help to Frazier or Newbill.
As a unit, this team has been phenomenal taking care of the basketball. The Princeton game was an anomaly (albeit a bad one, since it cost them a W), as this team is the 12th best in the country at not coughing up the rock. Maximizing scoring opportunities is invaluable for any offense, but even more so for a team that can shoot as well as PSU.
Heading into conference play, there's not much room for Penn State to improve on the offensive end. The focus will be continuing to produce at a high level against much better defenses while incorporating John Johnson and to a lesser extent, Jordan Dickerson. The one department PSU has struggled in is offensive rebounding, but in my opinion, the Lions should be more focused on getting back on defense at this point.
As we all know, the Lions' defense hasn't been effective at stopping anyone. In only three games this year has PSU kept their opponents under 0.98 PPP. In two of those games (Wagner and Duquesne), the Nits were aided by dreadful shooting from their opponents. Teams haven't had much trouble getting the shots they want against Penn State and that could spell disaster in the Big Ten.
The Lions' perimeter defense has actually been better so far than previous seasons judging by the season numbers. Opponents are not attempting as many threes nor are they making them at a better percentage. But that's a bit misleading considering in three of the Lions' four losses, their opponents converted a combined 31-71 from beyond the arc (43.7%). In five of the 13 games, PSU has surrendered at least 10 made three-pointers and allowed 45% or better shooting from beyond the arc.
Ken Pomeroy has documented the evidence that there's no consistency to any team's 3P% throughout the season, but my eyeballs remind me that PSU has surrendered plenty of open looks all season long. It didn't hurt them against Duquesne and Wagner, but it certainly did against Bucknell and Ole Miss. The entire Princeton game is a microcosm of how random three-point defense can be. The Tigers couldn't hit anything for the first 30 minutes, but how much credit does Penn State deserve for that?
The biggest disappointment to me has been the lack of ball pressure applied by the Lions' backcourt. This is one of the deepest group of guards this program has had at one time, yet they're only forcing opponents to turn it over 15% of their possessions. Even with Tim Frazier's 1.8 SPG average, Penn State's steal% is 323rd in the country.
The coaching staff was reportedly concerned about the new hand-checking rules hurting their defense and that could be part of it. The average turnover rate is down 1.5% across college basketball, but that can't be used as an excuse for PSU. There's too much athleticism and depth at the position to offer this little resistance to opposing guards. The Lions simply need to do a better job staying in front of the guy dribbling the basketball. Chambers' man-to-man philosophy heavily favors switching on ball screens and dribble hand-offs, but opposing teams have had far too much success turning the corner off the bounce.
The other weak spot of the defense has been the Lions' foul woes. The sophomore duo of Brandon Taylor and Jack have made marked strides in their game, but they could really afford to kick some of their hacking habits on the defensive end. Their aggressiveness has helped produce Penn State's best shot-blocking team in over a decade, but they've found themselves in foul trouble far too often so far. Hopefully they develop a better feel for when to time block attempts and when it's best to refrain.