Penn State faced the same situation twice in the span of seven days.
Against Purdue on Feb. 2, Penn State’s long-armed 7-0 center Jordan Dickerson joined 6-9 forward Donovon Jack on the bench after picking up his second foul. A week later against Illinois, Jack, the team’s leading shot blocker, became a spectator after he was whistled for his fourth foul.
In both games, 6-7 forward Brandon Taylor became the Nittany Lions’ center and last line of defense. The Boilermakers and Fighting Illini both attacked the weakness in the paint on their first offensive possessions.
Taylor stuffed Purdue’s 7-0 center A.J. Hammons. And he rejected Illinois’ 6-11 center Nnanna Egwu.
“I can play multiple positions, the four and the five, so it’s always being ready if Donovon’s in foul trouble or Jordan’s in foul trouble,” Taylor said. “It’s always being ready and being able to guard anybody.”
Taylor’s blocks energized the Bryce Jordan Center crowd and neutralized the Lions’ disadvantage in the paint for a moment in each game, but Penn State was a different team without a center in the lineup. It changes the way PSU plays on both ends of the floor, Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said. And though Chambers has experience playing small from his days as an assistant at Villanova, this Lions team is at its best with an inside presence.
The Penn State frontcourt will try to learn from past mistakes and stay on the floor when the Lions (12-12, 3-8) take on Indiana (14-9, 4-6) at Assembly Hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
“We like to have Brandon Taylor in the game as much as possible and a legit 5 man, especially if Donovon stays out of foul trouble,” Chambers said. “We’re a much better team and the numbers will back me up on that.”
Purdue trimmed the Lions’ 10-point lead to five with Dickerson and Jack watching from the sideline for the final seven minutes of the first half on Feb. 2. Illinois turned a three-point deficit into a one-point lead with Jack on the bench for four-plus minutes Sunday.
PSU managed just one field goal in the final 9:44 of its 60-55 loss to the Fighting Illini. Jack’s fourth foul came with 8:56 remaining. Dickerson was ineffective in 10 minutes, going 0-for-2 with two fouls, so Chambers went small.
He surrounded Taylor with four guards before mixing in 6-6 forward Ross Travis. The undersized lineup never found its rhythm, starting the drought that ultimately doomed the Lions.
“We need to put the ball inside and I think we were trying to, and in that situation where you have four guards and one big, you really need to do it then,” Chambers said. “Because then you can relieve some pressure off the guards or take some pressure off the guards by putting it in there.”
But Taylor’s ability in the post is limited.
The 6-7 forward is more effective on the perimeter, leading the team in 3-pointers with 35 and 3-point attempts with 110. Taylor scored all eight of his points in the second half and knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to keep the Lions within striking distance.
But the lack of any threat down low was magnified with each missed jumper and 3-pointer down the stretch.
“I felt like we got a little stagnant on offense,” Chambers said. “When we don’t get the ball side-to-side, we’re easy to guard, and then when we’re not making open shots, we’re even easier because you can load up in the paint.”
The lineup’s shortcomings underscored the issues caused by the foul trouble that has plagued Jack and Dickerson this season. Jack has fouled out of six games. He scored eight points in the first half, but played just six minutes in the second and fouled out against Illinois. The Lions lose a 3-point threat
and shot blocker when he’s out.
Dickerson has been inconsistent, picking up quick fouls and struggling offensively, but he can hide defensive breakdowns with his length and shot-blocking ability. Chambers said he and his staff break down the fouls with their players while watching film, showing them how to avoid the same mistakes in the future.
“Film doesn’t lie, so you see everything,” Jack said. “You can’t hide. Sometimes you’re on the court and you see something different and then we watch it in film, and we see a different option of what you could have done.”
The film also shows the Lions can survive at times with a smaller lineup. But Chambers knows his team is better with a big man on the floor.
“We had to go small,” Chambers said. “It helped us for a while, but we couldn’t finish the game that way.”