It’s no secret that Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill are Penn State’s first two options on offense.
Last Thursday against Michigan State, though, they were the Nittany Lions’ only options.
The backcourt duo combined to score Penn State’s first 16 points and accounted for 58 percent of the team’s points in the game, a formula that didn’t work in the loss to the Spartans and hasn’t worked all season.
The Lions are 2-6 this season when just two players score in double figures. Both wins came with Frazier and Newbill carrying the load — in the season opener against Wagner and in the third game of the season against Penn.
“We need a third-leading scorer,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said on his teleconference Friday. “If we don’t get a third-leading scorer in double digits, you see the result.”
The Lions (12-11, 3-7) will try to find that balance offensively against Illinois (13-10, 2-8) in a Big Ten matchup on Sunday at 4:15 p.m. at the Bryce Jordan Center.
The Fighting Illini have lost eight straight games since beating Penn State 75-55 in their first matchup on Jan. 4. Illinois held the Lions to a season-low point total in that game, limiting Frazier and Newbill to a combined 17 points.
Penn State will need contributions from its role players to get back on track after the loss to Michigan State snapped its three-game winning streak.
Frazier needs one assist to set the program’s all-time career record. He managed just one assist Thursday to move into a tie with Freddie Barnes with 600.
“It’s a team award, and it goes to all the players I had before me that knocked down shots for me,” Frazier said. “That was probably my role throughout a lot of my years was to get guys open, and I continue to do that now.”
But Chambers also likes to see him look for his shot.
With freshman guard Graham Woodward in the lineup, Frazier can play off the ball, allowing him to become a scorer rather than a facilitator. Frazier admitted he’s had to adjust his mindset to fulfill that role.
“It’s definitely different, man,” Frazier said. “Especially because you go out there for a while you’re just pass, pass, pass, get other guys open and kind of just look for your shot secondly.”
Chambers said Frazier looks more comfortable as Penn State enters the final stretch of the season.
That was clear against the Spartans when Frazier scored a game-high 22 points on 9-for-14 shooting, including 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. Frazier found his rhythm early and stayed hot the rest of the night. He connected on a runner to get Penn State on the board, drilled a deep pull-up and used a shot fake to set up an easy drive to the basket in the first five minutes.
“He’s just out there playing, and I think you saw that last night,” Chambers said. “He’s 3-for-4 from 3; he hasn’t shot like that in a long time.”
The coach has been impressed by Newbill’s play as well.
The redshirt junior guard was spectacular during the Lions’ three-game win streak, averaging 20 points per game. He carried Penn State down the stretch and hit the game-winner to cap a brilliant 25-point performance in an overtime win over Ohio State.
He stayed aggressive against Michigan State, attacking the rim possession after possession to try to spark the listless Penn State offense. Newbill struggled from the field, shooting 5-for-18 and going 0-for-7 from 3-point range.
Newbill finished with 17 points, thanks to a 7-for-8 performance at the free-throw line.
“He’s been very steady,” Chambers said. “His production — not just scoring, but rebounds and doing all the little things for this team.
“And then off the floor, he’s more vocal and a more determined D.J. Newbill, who is trying to help Tim Frazier lead this team to places we haven’t seen in years.”
Newbill ranks third in the Big Ten in scoring with 17.6 points per game. Frazier, who’s averaging 16.4, is seventh, making Penn State the only team with two players in the top 10.
They’ve been a dynamic backcourt duo for the Lions. But they can’t do it alone.
“Guys got to step up and help him and D.J. out a little bit,” Chambers said.
Notes: Illinois junior guard Rayvonte Rice is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 16.9 points per game. Rice scored 15 points to lead four players in double figures in the Fighting Illini’s win over the Lions on Jan. 4. The Lions shot 29.8 percent from the field in the loss to Illinois.