It's impossible to find tangible evidence of progress from Penn State men's basketball if you are what your record says you are. The cagers have been pretty lousy ever since Talor Battle graduated, but there have been encouraging signs of improvement on one end of the floor during the Pat Chambers era.
The fifth-year head coach deserves credit for what his 'Attitude Club' has done to improve Penn State's defense. What began as an admirable philosophy of maximum effort and sacrifice, the Lions' mantra seemed to stale as the losses piled up over time. But the numbers show Penn State's defense has steadily improved over the last four years.
Although it was overlooked last season by the exasperation of so many agonizing losses, the Nittany Lions' defense finished the year ranked 50th in KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency. Just how good is that? It's a relatively average ranking for any NCAA tournament team, but it was the best final ranking for a Penn State defense in KenPom history (dating back to the 2001-2002 season). In conference play, Penn State's raw defensive efficiency even bested the aggregate Big Ten mark for the first time in that span, as well.
Penn State nearly finished last in the Big Ten in 2015, but the stats don't incriminate the defense for the season's poor outcome. In fact, it was the competency of the oft-forgotten unit that kept the Lions in so many close games. Frankly, it's a shame that Penn State didn't take better advantage of its best defensive team in years last season.
So what expectations can be set for this year's Attitude Club? Back in March, it wasn't unreasonable to believe that the Lions could field a similarly competent defense the next year, but Geno Thorpe's transfer to South Florida dealt an unexpected blow. They already had to replace a good amount of minutes from DJ Newbill and Ross Travis. Now with Thorpe out of the picture, Chambers will do his best to get his new players up to speed as quickly as possible.
The first question that immediately comes to mind is how can they replace Travis' rebounding? The program's third all-time leading rebounder was a force on the glass for the Lions all four years of his career. He anchored a defensive rebounding unit that ranked third in Big Ten play after limiting opponents to a solid 28.0 percent offensive rebounding percentage.
As for Newbill, he was always willing to mix it up on the boards, but his 11.0 percent DR% was average for his size and position. In fairness, he logged a ton of minutes and was asked to do everything on offense for PSU last year. It's not fair to label him a defensive liability, but he did essentially play 'matador defense' for 91.4 percent of the game. If the offense is truly more balanced, PSU won't be in that situation again.
Thorpe, however, seems like the biggest loss. He emerged last year in his sophomore season as the Lions' peskiest perimeter defender. Never shy at trying to rattle the psyche of his opponents, Thorpe's antics would often frustrate competitors. That was not always the case (D'Angelo Russell torched him), but he had the leading role in the Lions' best perimeter defense in years.
KenPom says 3P% is mostly luck, but Penn State allowed teams to connect on just 32.6 percent of their shots beyond the arc. In another metric with more defensive influence (3PA% - the rate at which a team allows threes), the Lions used to always be under siege from the perimeter when Ed DeChellis was head coach. Penn State's 33.3 percent 3PA% last year was remarkably lower than any figure in that category from the past thirteen seasons. The improvement in both of those metrics were catalysts to Penn State's best eFG% defense (45.3 percent for the season, 49.0 percent in the Big Ten). But without Thorpe's experience on the perimeter, can this young team duplicate that level of success?
What's Still Broken?
The achilles' heel of Chambers' defenses in Happy Valley has been their uncontrollable fouling habits. Out of 72 regular season Big Ten games under Pat Chambers, Penn State has been outshot from the charity stripe in 56 of them (78 percent). In 18 conference games a year ago, the Nits conceded 10 or more free throw attempts to the other team in eight of them. That's a three-possession advantage! Here's a reminder that PSU lost three conference games by three points or fewer and two more in overtime last season.
So can Penn State stop giving away free points in 2016? It will have to be proven by the returning frontcourt, since they were the biggest hackers. Donovon Jack's struggles were the root cause of his disappointing junior season. Jack's foul rate ballooned from 6.7 fouls per 40 minutes as a sophomore to 8.7 (that's a foul every 4.5 minutes). Jordan Dickerson also had his own woes (7.2 FC/40), although a decent portion could be chalked up to limited conditioning. If Dickerson has gained a better wind for this season, he could have an effective impact for longer stretches.
While they've already retained the two biggest culprits for their team's fouling addiction, they also are relying on a young cast of characters to fill out the rest of the rotation. Seven of their 11 scholarship players this year have a combined total of 813 minutes of experience and 745 came in limited roles last year. Throw in the talent gap compared to the top-half of the Big Ten, and that's a mountain of a learning curve.
KenPom.com: 96.9 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, 91st overall
Dan Hanner/SI: 95.4 Projected Defensive Efficiency, 46th overall
The computers have caught on to Penn State's defensive trend and view the Lions as another decent defensive team heading into this season. Hanner's top-50 ranking is especially surprising when you consider his model performed the best in last year's conference win projections. Either way, it's a pretty safe assumption Penn State's defense will be stronger than its rebuilding offense.
But how good can the defense be? That will be dependent on many factors, including how quickly the new freshmen can adjust. Chambers' first four-star recruits seem like perfect fits for his attitude club. Both Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins possess great athleticism and length, but it's their defensive attitudes that could allow them to excel.
This newfound athleticism will be relied upon to replace Travis' missing presence on the glass. Dickerson and Jack have never been quality rebounders down low, so look for Reaves, Watkins, Brandon Taylor, Julian Moore and Payton Banks to be tasked with cleaning up the boards. Penn State does have its tallest roster in years, so they must use that to their advantage.
One strength undoubtedly will be Penn State's shot-blocking ability, as they return three of the program's top-10 all-time leading shot-blockers. Dickerson has already proven what difference he can make when he's defending without foul trouble, but that's just the thing. The Lions' shot-blocking prowess has to be viewed as a double-edged sword due to their propensity to foul just as much. If Penn State ever cuts down on their number of fouls, they could have one of the best interior defenses in the league.
As for the backcourt defense, all eyes will be on Reaves. The true freshman will be tasked with replacing Geno Thorpe, since Thorpe's actual replacement, UConn transfer Terrence Samuel, is forced to sit out this season. With the new rule changes set to increase the game's pace, Chambers expressed a desire to find ways to create more turnovers that lead to easy transition opportunities. Those quotes were before Thorpe's transfer, so we'll just have to see how much full court pressure Chambers employs and how effective it will be.
If things break right, Penn State could sport another top-50 defense that will keep them competitive in the Big Ten. But with how much youth Penn State has in their rotation, it may be best to expect a slight step back on defense for the first time under Chambers, especially since they can't offer an obvious cure for the foul issues that have forever plagued their improved efforts.