As the Penn State men’s basketball season nears, veteran leaders Tim Frazier and Jermaine Marshall are hopeful that, like the football team, they can turn what many think will be a disappointing season into one that will restore respectability to Nittany Lion basketball.
“Adversity hit our school big time,” Frazier said. “So for [the football team] to stick together and be able to go out each Saturday and give it their all…it just gets me excited for basketball because I want to do the same thing.”
Frazier, a senior and an All-Big Ten selection last season, will get his chance when Penn State’s second-annual Hoops Madness kicks off October 25 with a performance from rapper Big Sean in Rec Hall.
Officially, head coach Patrick Chambers’ second attempt to bring credibility to Penn State basketball will begin Friday with the season’s first practice. But, after a 12-20 record last season (4-14 in the Big Ten) early respect is proving hard to come by for the Nittany Lions.
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Monday, Frazier was ranked 54 in the CBSsports.com top 100 players in the nation. Clearly recognition from a stellar junior campaign that saw Frazier lead his team in points, rebounds and assists. But, Frazier was left off the preseason All-American teams while fellow Big Ten point guards, Trey Burke from Michigan and Aaron Craft from Ohio State, two players Frazier bested in nearly every statistical category, were selected to the second and third teams respectively.
Clearly the distinction between the three comes from a combination of the Nittany Lions poor record last season and preseason prognostications that predict Michigan and Ohio State will battle for Big Ten, if not, national supremacy this season.
But Frazier won’t get caught up in individual accolades or even in rivalries with other Big Ten point guards.
“I’ve [spent] a good part of my life as…an underdog,” Frazier said. “But I’m more about the team. Our team is an underdog this year. So I’m more focused on that [than] being an underdog versus other point guards.”
Last season, Frazier burst into Big Ten consciousness, finishing second in the conference in scoring (18.8) after two seasons as a role player. His offensive output was even more impressive given that opposing defensive game plans frequently entailed five defenders focused on Frazier.
But, his shooting percentage (41.9) suffered because of the increased attention. Without a consistent second threat Frazier forced shots and the team struggled to score for long stretches.
But if Marshall, a junior and the only other player to average double digits (10.8), can be a consistent factor from the perimeter he could make teams pay for over committing on Frazier.
Marshall came on strong at the end of an up-and-down sophomore season that saw him suspended early in the year for a violation of team rules. In the last game of the Big Ten regular season he erupted with a 27-point, break-out performance against a Michigan team who won a share of the regular season conference title.
“It had a big part to do with the team,” Marshall said. “It wasn’t just me personally. Obviously I made a couple shots here and there but those guys did a great job of finding me.”
Marshall’s humility notwithstanding, the guard-centric Lions will need him to keep the same confidence that helped him burn the Wolverines with his best shooting performance (10-18 from the field, 4-8 from three) of the season.
DJ Newbill doesn’t lack for confidence and even though the guard from Philadelphia has yet to step on the floor for Penn State he is already a strong influence in the locker room.
“DJ brings a lot to the table,” Frazier said. “He has that kind of Philly swagger to him when he plays and he’s another leader on the floor.”
But off the floor Newbill has had to endure recent tragedy.
In September, Newbill’s mother, Tawanda Roach, lost her battle with cancer. Newbill might become a huge part of a Nittany Lion basketball resurgence, but for now his teammates are more concerned with getting him through this tough time.
“I go over to his [apartment] pretty often and play video games…to help keep his mind off [everything],” Marshall said. “But at the same time we talk about how tough he is -- mentally tough. You know, I was talking to him about how I don’t know if I would be as stable as he is right now.”
Newbill transferred from Southern Mississippi last season but had to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules. He plays a consummate brand of Philadelphia basketball, adept at getting to the basket and drawing contact, which should help an anemic Nittany Lion offense that had the worst shooting percentage (39.3) in the Big Ten last season.
The team has yet to make an official announcement on captains but Newbill and Frazier are likely candidates.
Even with Newbill in the fold, the Nittany Lions will still struggle against teams with elite talent and size, as evidenced by Frazier -- a point guard -- leading the team in rebounds (4.7) last season. Junior forward Sasa Borovnjak and sophomore big men, Jon Graham and Ross Travis had just one, 10-rebound game between them last season. That will have to change if Penn State wants to stake a claim in the middle of a top-heavy Big Ten conference.
But they believe that Coach Chambers’ philosophy can help them put together a season as surprising as what Bill O’Brien and Penn State football have done thus far this season.
“Our staple. That’s attitude,” Marshall said. “That’s playing hard. And that’s being a family on and off the court. That’s what we’re gonna try to do no matter who we’re playing against. You know, we believe we can play with anybody in the country. As long as we stick to what we do and what Penn State basketball is, we can do that.”