Penn State will face a stiff test today against sixth-ranked North Carolina State in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip-off tournament.
While the Nittany Lions are going against a team with high national expectations, Penn State coach Patrick Chambers is focused more on the progress of his squad than on the challenges presented by the talented Wolfpack.
The game will tip off at 5 p.m. and be televised on ESPN2 from Coliseo Ruben Rodriquez in Bayamon, Puerto Rico. Both teams are 1-0.
“This game isn’t going to be so much about N.C. State but more about Penn State and how far we’ve come in a year,” Chambers said before the team left for San Juan.
N.C. State began its season with a 97-59 win against Miami (Ohio) last week, holding the Red Hawks to just 29 percent shooting from the field.
If N.C. State is a team vying for position in the national spotlight, Penn State is looking to build some early-season momentum to carry into the rest of its non-conference schedule.
The Nittany Lions shot the ball poorly for most of the 65-58 season-opening win Friday against St. Francis, hitting just 3-for-24 from the 3-point line and 17-for-47 from the field overall.
“You just have to get in here and shoot,” Chambers said. “And most of these guys do that without me telling them … but we did do a good of getting ourselves to the foul line in that game.”
Finding ways to win is something Chambers has preached to his team all preseason. Against St. Francis, Tim Frazier scored a game-high 23 points, with 17 coming from the foul line, while D.J. Newbill added 16 points including nine free throws. As a team, the Lions were 28 of 32 from the foul line in the opener.
Overcoming poor shooting – and 17 turnovers – against the Red Flash is one thing. That’s unlikely to happen against the Wolfpack.
“If you worry about Penn State the score will take care of itself,” Chambers said. “It’s not about them … it’s about us, where our heads are and what we’re willing to do to compete for 40 minutes.”
The Nittany Lions’ frontcourt – except for Ross Travis’s 10 points and nine rebounds – was unremarkable in the opener. Jon Graham and Sasa Borovnjak tallied two field goals and five rebounds between them in a combined 32-minute effort.
Chambers said the smaller, quicker Red Flash dictated a smaller, quicker defensive lineup. But, the Penn State big men will certainly be challenged throughout the tournament against the more traditional size and skill of teams such as N.C. State.
“I think you’ll see that this weekend we’re playing a lot of teams that play traditionally,” Chambers said. “I think you’ll see a better output from our front court this weekend. We’ll need it.”
N.C. State was picked to win the Atlantic Coast Conference in the conference’s first-ever preseason coaches’ poll, receiving more first-place votes (8) than perennial ACC power Duke (3).
N.C. State returns junior power forward C.J. Leslie and junior point guard Lorenzo Brown, both selected preseason all-ACC. Leslie was chosen as the conference’s preseason player of the year.
The Wolfpack also added three McDonald’s All-Americans to their roster, including Rodney Purvis, the preseason all-ACC freshman of the year.
The accolades make N.C. State a target for ambitious teams trying to impress pollsters and post-season selection committees.
“It's a new year and we are the hunted instead of the hunter,” Wolfpack assistant coach Bobby Lutz said during the tournament’s conference call last week. Mark Gottfried, N.C. State’s head coach, was unavailable.
The Wolfpack’s coaching staff has been preparing its team for high expectations all preseason.
“Coach Gottfried has done a great job of reminding all of us, our staff and our players, on a regular basis that we were picked eighth or ninth last year and that didn't matter,” Lutz said. “But being picked first is nice, but that doesn't matter, either.”
Along with Purvis — who started in the opener — freshmen Tyler Lewis and T.J. Warren will add to a team that finished 9-7 in ACC play last season and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament, losing to eventual national runner-up Kansas, 60-57.
“Our freshmen have all shown that they are going to be in the rotation,” Lutz said. “Those guys have had some really impressive times. Their consistency is what has to develop for us to be a really good team.”
Warren and Lewis played the most minutes (24 and 15, respectively) of any non-starters in the team’s opener.
Penn State’s freshmen will also be called upon to contribute important minutes during the tournament’s grueling three-games-in-four-days span.
“That’s going to be a great challenge,” Chambers said. “Tim Frazier, you know he’ll play a lot of minutes, next will be (Newbill) and then the other top four or five guys. But we’re really going to need the freshmen. They’ll have to play some quality minutes – 10, 15 minutes each night – for us to push through this weekend.”
Brandon Taylor was the only freshman to see the floor in the opener, grabbing two rebounds in four minutes. Donovon Jack’s size and skill will also be needed against N.C. State and so will the perimeter shooting of fellow freshman Akosa Maduegbunam.
The Nittany Lions will face either Providence or Massachusetts on Friday.
Tim Frazier added another early-season honor to his resume on Tuesday when the Atlanta Tipoff Club selected him to the Naismith Award Early Season Watch List. The Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year presented by AT&T will be awarded on April 7 in Atlanta.