Penn State Basketball

Penn State men’s basketball: Nittany Lions looking at bigger frontcourt

Penn State is counting on 6-foot-9 Donovan Jack in its frontcourt as the Nittany Lions plan go to a bigger look.
Penn State is counting on 6-foot-9 Donovan Jack in its frontcourt as the Nittany Lions plan go to a bigger look. CDT file photo

UNIVERSITY PARK — Throughout the season, when Jordan Dickerson went to the scorer’s table, he was waiting to check in for Donovon Jack. And when Jack reentered play, the Penn State big men would trade places again.

But the last two games, Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers played the 7-foot center and 6-foot-9 forward together in a new-look lineup focused on adding more length defensively, while also giving a glimpse of Chambers’ plans for the future.

“We’re very big,” Chambers said of the lineup. “Really, really big, so your 6-7, 6-9, 7-foot-1. That’s a Big Ten team. No question about it. It just depends on how long I can play it for and if the matchups are right.”

The results with Dickerson and Jack sharing the frontcourt varied. Chambers felt the bigger lineup made a difference in the win over then-No. 22 Ohio State last Thursday, but it wasn’t as effective in Penn State’s loss to then-No. 14 Wisconsin on Sunday. The Lions coach hasn’t been able to use the lineup for long stretches, but he plans to use it for the remainder of this season.

Chambers said he knows Dickerson is capable of handling the responsibilities of the center position, defending off ball screens and blocking shots. The SMU transfer has started the last two games, highlighted by two blocked shots and a putback slam in the win over Ohio State.

And the coach said 6-foot-7 Brandon Taylor, who would slide to the small forward spot, is developing well on both ends of the floor. So the effectiveness of the taller lineup will ultimately come down to Jack’s ability to guard the power-forward position.

But Lions guard D.J. Newbill feels the switch would make sense for the 6-foot-9 lefty.

As Penn State’s center, Jack has been tasked with defending bigger, stronger players in the paint, where he’s been overmatched at times and struggled with foul trouble.

“Dono, he’s a natural 4,” Newbill said. “He’s playing the 5. He’s actually doing a good job at it. But I mean, he’s a natural 4. So I think pushing him back to his more comfortable position will only make him a better player.

“Jordan, he’s made tremendous strides throughout the season and got better and better and better to where now, he may get a starting role. So I think that just gives our team better rebounding, better rim protection when they’re both out there together and gives us more of a post presence.”

Newbill said Dickerson’s development gives Penn State the post presence it has often lacked in its history. Dickerson is the program’s first 7-footer since Jan Jagla played from 2002-04.

As Dickerson and Jack continue to improve, Newbill said Penn State will only get better.

Chambers expressed the same excitement for the future.

“I really like that tall lineup,” Chambers said. “And I think it’s gonna be a lineup that you’re gonna see in the future this year and definitely next year.”

Breaking down Northwestern

Northwestern has built its identity around defense out of necessity this season.

The Wildcats (12-17, 5-11) rank last in the conference in scoring at 60 points per game, an issue that’s contributed to their six-game losing streak going into their matchup against Penn State (14-15, 5-11) in Evanston, Ill., on Thursday.

“They’re juicing the clock a little bit and trying to take the best shot available,” Chambers said. “And then they play very good defense because they switch 1-4.”

The Wildcats are third in the conference in scoring defense, allowing just 63.4 points per game, and they used that strength to win five of seven games at one point in conference play.

But the scoring woes have been too much to overcome.

Drew Crawford leads Northwestern with 15.5 points per game. Wildcats coach Chris Collins announced last Thursday that second-leading scorer JerShon Cobb, who averaged 12.2 points per game, was out for the season due to injury.

Big Ten tournament on the horizon

Penn State entered the week tied for last place in the Big Ten with Northwestern and Purdue.

All three teams are 5-11 in conference play. The Lions’ final two games, at Northwestern and Minnesota, will play a factor in their seeding for the Big Ten tournament, which starts on March 13 in Indianapolis.

Michigan went into Tuesday night in first place with a 13-3 record. Michigan State and Wisconsin are tied for second at 11-5. All three have clinched first-round byes, with the fourth still up for grabs. Iowa and Nebraska are tied in fourth at 9-7. Ohio State (9-8) is sixth.

The Big Ten tournament championship game is set for Sunday, March 16, at 3:30 p.m.