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Centers of Attention: Are We Living In A Penn State Basketball Golden Age?

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Sometimes it’s hard to realize just how good things are in real time.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Purdue vs Penn State Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State won the NIT Championship three seasons ago. A year later, facing the tough task of replacing the first player drafted by the NBA after just two seasons in State College, the team finished ranked 50th in the NET Rankings. Pat Chambers led the program last year to what was arguably the best result in modern history.

Now the team sits with a 3-1 record entering the Big Ten conference schedule. With the Big Ten playing well in the ACC/Big Ten challenge, and there being so little non-conference play this year, the Lions are in a position that a .500 record in the B1G could be enough for a trip to the NCAA Tournament. There won’t be much of a margin for error between the Big Dance or making the NIT, just a couple of games, as it is unlikely that any squad with a losing record will head to the NIT.

And still it remains. Should Jim Ferry find a way to get his team to the post-season, this will be seen as the best 4-year stretch for the program this century. It’s easy to forget that the team made the post-season nine times from 1989-2001, including three NCAA trips. It has only been back 5 times, including last year in that count, in the twenty years since.

We may be sitting right on top of the best run since the Crispin days and the fabled 1990’s, should the team continue to play solid this year. It appears that they have the skill and roster to compete. With the win last night Kenpom.com has the Lions rated at No. 52 overall with its non-conference strength of schedule 85th-toughest. It’s early and there is a lot of uncertainty this year, but that puts the team in position to move up to where it needs to be if it can win the games that it will need to win to get to a .500 conference record.

There’s even a tiny chance, with the strength of the Big Ten this year, that Penn State could finish with a losing conference record and still get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. That’s not unheard of in a strong conference, but with so few games played, it would only allow for a 9-11 result and then a win or two in the Big Ten tournament. Anything less would likely leave the team out of the post-season altogether.

It’s going to be a fun ride, there are a lot of great teams in the Big Ten this year. If things go well, we may look back at these times as being a Golden Age, or at least, a mini-golden age, for the program and its fans. We should let the good times and success soak in along the way, understanding that there could be just as many losses as wins, maybe even two more losses than wins, and the team could reach the ultimate goal of playing in the Big Dance.

Focus On The Bigs

After two serious challenges from Seton Hall and Virginia Tech, the Lions have shown that they have enough firepower on the post to compete this season. There will be few days during the Big Ten schedule that the team will have it easy, but at least we know that they will be able to stand and fight against taller, stronger teams.

Trent Buttrick entered with just 2 minutes and 32 seconds expired from the game clock. As John Harrar’s primary backup at center, Buttrick has been used to waiting much longer before getting a chance to help the team. There was no reason other than Jim Ferry’s strategy to get him on the floor, Harrar did not pick up his first foul of the game until early in the second half.

Penn State was leading 7-3 at the time and when Buttrick went to the bench four minutes later, the Lions were up 17-4. It was the first critical run for the team and Virginia Tech only cut the lead to less than ten points one more time, briefly getting to within 8 with 30 minutes to play. To say that it was all Buttrick’s doing would be comically over-stating what happened. To suggest that it had nothing to do with the stellar play by the senior center would be unfair as well.

During his first four minutes on the floor Buttrick had 3 rebounds and 2 assists, that is pretty good for any backup center. Harrar came back in the game and played a four-minute shift before heading to the bench while Abdou Tsimbila entered earlier than he has during his brief 4-game career. After 3 minutes, Tsimbila went to the bench with 2 rebounds and having forced a turnover, though he did not get credit for it in the stat book.

Buttrick relieved Harrar again with 3 minutes to go before the half and this time he flashed some scoring savvy. The play started as most successful plays start, with hustle. Buttrick ran down the court in the transition game and immediately began setting high screens for the guards. He then became a safety outlet, handling the ball cleanly at the top of the key. Then Virginia Tech forgot where he was and the senior forward showed his talent on they way to the basket. His agility and good hands made the play look easy, many backup centers are not that fluid.

To prove that it was not a fluke he did it again later in the second half. There are plenty of limitations in Buttrick’s game but he is beginning to find a way to make use of the skills that he does have, that make him a valuable Big Ten player.

On the next trip down the court Buttrick came up with a steal. It is clear that the team will seldom ask any of the three centers that it has to play with their back to the basket on the post, taking entry passes and converting them for points. Harrar will do that a few times per game and that is great. Tsimbila and Buttrick will have to get their points off put-backs and while flashing to the hoop for layups or dunks.

Tsimbila showed that he is capable when opposing teams try to back him down on the post. While it wasn’t a work of art, he came up with a block while being isolated by a taller, more experienced player. I let the video run a little bit to show something else that was nice. He ran the court, set a screen, then had the guard seen him, could have had a dunk on the same play that Buttrick had already executed twice. The part I liked was after being stripped of the ball, he dove to the floor to tap it to a teammate then popped up to rejoin the play.

That was a pretty good showing for the freshman center, being called to produce, not just hold a spot, during a critical early-season win. As you can see in the stats below, Harrar and Buttrick stayed out of foul trouble and the 5 minutes that Tsimbila was on the court made that easier to accomplish. Not only can the team dodge foul trouble with Tsimbila in the game, his ability to block shots, and having roughly a foul per minute to spend while he is in there, makes it a time when the team can be more aggressive.

It will be Jim Ferry’s answer later in the year when the team is getting pushed around on the post, to bring in the big guy and see if he can do some pushing of his own.

Box Score