After suffering an upset loss to Bucknell in the second game of the season, the Penn State men’s basketball team had fans questioning how succesful the season would be.
The Nittany Lions responded by running off four consecutive victories and enter Friday’s 7 p.m. clash against St. John’s in the opening round of the Barclays Center Classic brimming with confidence.
Penn State (5-1) has won four straight since the 90-80 loss to the Bison, including a 79-72 triumph against La Salle, which made the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament last season.
“We’ve made our adjustments, there’s no question, after Bucknell,” said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers after Tuesday’s 84-52 romp against Monmouth. “We learned our lesson. Our defense is a lot better. We’re rebounding the ball better. We’re not fouling as much. ... We have some depth. We have some skill. We have some players. We just have to continue building that trust with one another.”
The Nittany Lions certainly are putting the ball in the basket better than they ever have before for their third-year coach. Chambers’ charges are averaging 82.2 points per game, 17 more than they did during non-conference games last season. Tim Frazier (18.3), D.J. Newbill (18.0), Brandon Taylor (13.0) and Ross Travis (11.0) are scoring in double figures and others are capable of exploding. Donovon Jack had a team-high 18 against La Salle and Allen Roberts pumped in 17 against Monmouth.
Penn State is shooting a blistering 49.4 percent from the floor.
“With our team one guy might not be having a good game but the other four guys on the court are going to pick him up,” Frazier said.
Chambers actually can go to his bench and get immediate production.
“I’m still getting used to it, to be honest with you,” Chambers said of the Nittany Lions’ depth. “For the last two years, I played six guys.”
Penn State, thanks in big part to the return of Frazier from injury, are ninth best in the country with just 9.5 turnovers per game and 15th in assist-to-turnover ratio. Frazier has 44 assists and 20 turnovers, while the entire team has 94 assists and 57 turnovers. Frazier’s 7.3 assists per game lead the Big Ten and are sixth in the country.
The Nittany Lions will be put to the test by St. John’s, which has won four straight since an 86-75 loss to Wisconsin in its season opener. Included in the winning streak is a 67-63 victory against Bucknell.
The Red Storm has been getting it done with defense during its current run. They’re allowing 52.2 points per game in the winning streak.
“Each year there are three or four teams that blitz through the competition from start to finish of the season,” said St. John’s coach Steve Lavin when asked to evaluate his team after it shot 37 percent in a 65-47 win over Longwood on Tuesday. “The rest of the teams in country you can throw in a hat and what will determine their degree of success is how much progress they make over the course of the season. The teams that improve the most between tonight and the middle of March are the ones that best position themselves for a postseason run.”
Junior guard D’Angelo Harrison leads St. John’s with a 19.4 scoring average. JaKarr Simpson, a 6-foot-9 forward, averages 12.4 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest. The Red Storm tied a school mark with 15 blocks against Longwood.
The Penn State-St. John’s clash will be preceded by a contest between Georgia Tech (5-1) and Mississippi (4-0). The semifinal winners will play for the title at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. The losers will meet at 2 p.m.
Notes: Penn State and St. John’s will meet for the first time since the Red Storm defeated the Nittany Lions 25-17 in December of 1911. ... The Barclays Center is located in Brooklyn, the borough where St. John’s was founded in 1870. ... Penn State is 12-17 all-time against Big East teams. ... The Nittany Lions are 71-85 in early season tournaments with 10 titles.