Penn State coach Patrick Chambers thinks his program is headed in the right direction after his third year at the helm.
Chambers led the Nittany Lions from two wins in the Big Ten and 10 overall last year to six conference wins and 16 overall this season. The coach views that gradual progress as a step forward. But Penn State still finished with its third straight losing record.
“If I was in the real world, I’d be salesman of the year because we went from two wins to six, from 10 to 16,” Chambers said Tuesday. “But obviously I’m not in the real world, so it doesn’t count like that. It counts in wins and losses.”
Penn State went 16-18 and 6-12 to finish tied for 10th in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions were 5-8 in games decided by five or fewer points. They lost to mid-major programs Bucknell, Princeton and Siena, and they started 0-6 in conference play. But they beat Ohio State twice and went 6-6 down the stretch in the Big Ten.
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Chambers will have every major contributor back except fifth-year point guard Tim Frazier. The coach expressed excitement about the experience coming back, which includes five of the team’s top six scorers and eight players who started this season.
“It was a long, long, long year of a lot of ups and a lot of downs and a lot of highs and a lot of lows,” Chambers said. “But I think because of all the experience, I think it will pay off in the end.”
Chambers said the game slows down with each year for players.
He expects to see that experience benefit transfers John Johnson and Jordan Dickerson, and freshmen guards Geno Thorpe and Graham Woodward next year. Sophomores Brandon Taylor and Donovon Jack started 30 and 27 games, respectively.
And leading scorer D.J. Newbill will be back to lead the way.
Newbill, who averaged 17.8 points per game, became the team’s lone scoring threat by the end of the season. But Newbill is confident Thorpe and Woodward will step up and produce after seeing them develop throughout the season.
“We’re gonna throw them in the fire now,” Newbill said. “We see that they can do it now, so we’re gonna expect a lot of them next year. So they got to work that much harder. They’re not freshmen anymore, now they got to play like juniors. We’re skipping the whole sophomore season. We’re skipping it.
“They already proved that they can play in these situations, in these big moments, so why hold yourself back?”
To get over the hump, Chambers said his team will need to knock down 3-pointers and finish close games.
Before the season, the coach felt Penn State needed to hit seven 3s to be competitive. Penn State trusted Taylor and Jack to fire from long range in addition to guards Newbill, Frazier, Woodward and Johnson. But each went through shooting slumps, and the Nittany Lions shot just 31.9 percent from beyond the arc, finishing 10th in the Big Ten.
The shooting struggles led to scoring droughts when opponents packed the paint to prevent Newbill’s drives. The team’s 60-55 loss to Illinois – in which Penn State made one field goal in the final 9:44 – still sticks with Chambers, who called outside shooting a big focus heading into the offseason.
“I like our team, I like everybody we have, we just need to make 3s,” Chambers said. “We need to make some shots. We can only get so many stops, which we did for a long time.”
“That Illinois game just keeps ringing in my head. Nine minutes of getting stops and stops and stops and stops with no baskets. It just crushes you as coach. You try every wrinkle, everything you can possibly think of, even creating a new play just to try to get a layup, but we got to make some shots. We got to make some 3s.”
And they need close out games, an issue that was magnified during Penn State’s 0-6 start to Big Ten play.
The Nittany Lions lost to both Minnesota and Indiana by three points before collapsing in the final seconds in a one-point loss to Purdue.
Nearly three months later, Chambers admits he’s looked back and thought about what he could have done differently during the winless start. But he could only call the loss to Minnesota “crazy” and throw his hands up as he tried to explain the loss to the Boilermakers.
“It just seemed like whatever we tried went against us,” Chambers said. “Those things happen. But if you win those two games, now you’re what, 2-4?”
Despite the disappointing record this year, Chambers sees a foundation in place as he continues to build his program.
“The only pressure I feel is the pressure I put on myself,” Chambers said. “So I feel like we’re headed in the right direction.”
Replacing Frazier at the point
Penn State will have to replace the program’s all-time leader in assists at point guard next season.
Tim Frazier’s five-year career came to end with the Nittany Lions’ loss to Siena in the College Basketball Invitational last Monday. He averaged 14.9 points, 5.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game this season.
Chambers said D.J. Newbill, who played point guard when Frazier missed the 2012-13 season due to injury, will see time running the offense.
“Is there a chance for D.J. to play the point next year? Yeah, no question,” Chambers said. “He can do it. I don’t know if I want him to do it for 40 (minutes), but I’d like him to do it for some of the game.”
Chambers said Geno Thorpe, Graham Woodward and incoming freshman Shep Garner will also be in the mix to take over for Frazier. Thorpe started three games this season, but Chambers said he needs to improve his ball handling, particularly his left hand, in the offseason. Woodward started six games and was the team’s top 3-point shooter. Garner is a 6-foot-2 guard our of Roman Catholic High School in Philadelphia, but Chambers said he needs to wait and see how he handles the transition to the college game.
“We got a lot of options,” Frazier said of potential replacements. “I think the more options you have, it’s gonna be great. Graham, he’s gonna come in, obviously he’s the point guard that we think of first because he was the one that came in and spelled us a lot as far as point guard went.
“But also D.J., he’ll be able to play point guard as well.”
Chambers not anticipating transfers out of program
After losing guard Jermaine Marshall to transfer last year, Chambers said he expects every player to return next season.
He said he’ll have individual meetings next week.
“We’ll sit down and we’ll talk about roles,” Chambers said. “And we’ll talk about what we got to work on, and talk about their future and hopefully everybody wants to stay.”
Marshall originally left Penn State to play professionally overseas before deciding to transfer to Arizona State. Marshall was the Sun Devils’ second-leading scorer, averaging 15.1 points per game to help the team make the NCAA tournament.