Penn State Basketball

Penn State men’s basketball notes: Smaller lineup giving Nittany Lions versatility on defense

Penn State’s Ross Travis (43) and Geno Thorpe are integral parts of the Nittany Lions’ new lineup.
Penn State’s Ross Travis (43) and Geno Thorpe are integral parts of the Nittany Lions’ new lineup. CDT file photo

Penn State stepped on the Breslin Center floor with an undersized starting lineup last Wednesday. The same group started again Saturday against Rutgers.

Forwards Ross Travis (6-foot-7) and Brandon Taylor (6-foot-6) made up the frontcourt, while guards D.J. Newbill, Geno Thorpe and Shep Garner manned the backcourt.

The lineup gives Penn State speed and versatility on the defensive end.

“I just think we’re faster,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said Monday. “Rotations are faster. We can switch things that we couldn’t switch before. We’re getting to 3-point shooters a little bit more quickly. I know in the Big Ten-only, our 3-point defense isn’t great, but over the last couple games, it’s been pretty good.”

Chambers has used four different starting lineups this season. He’s tried all four during Big Ten play after going with two different lineups during the non-conference slate. The coach made his latest adjustment after the Nittany Lions (13-7, 1-6) got burned from beyond the arc.

Penn State’s first five conference opponents shot 42.5 percent from 3-point range. Michigan State and Rutgers combined to shoot 26.9 percent from deep against Penn State in the last two games.

The smaller lineup has limited opportunities on the perimeter.

Michigan State didn’t attempt a 3-pointer before the first substitutions three minutes into the game and didn’t make a three until there was 6:09 left in the first half. Rutgers, among the worst shooting teams in the league, missed its first 3-point attempt with 5:51 left in the first half.

“Our defensive rotations are different,” Newbill said. “Because now (Taylor) can guard 1 through 5, Ross can guard 1 through 5, I can guard 1 through 5, so we can kind of switch pick-and-rolls, dribble handoffs, things like that, to kind of stop some teams’ plays.”

Still, Chambers is looking for a stronger start when Penn State faces Minnesota (13-8, 2-6) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Penn State fell into a 10-2 hole in the first six minutes of its loss to the Spartans. The Nittany Lions got off to a slow start and trailed 6-0 against Rutgers in the opening minutes before throttling the Scarlet Knights for their first Big Ten win.

“We just need that starting five to get off to better starts,” Chambers said. “To get a little bit of a lead and create the energy for us as opposed to waiting under the 16-minute mark and down four or down six or down 10-2.”

Newbill, Taylor and Garner have each started all 20 games this season, while Travis has started 19.

Penn State went with a starting lineup of 6-foot-9 forward Donovon Jack, Taylor, Travis, Newbill and Garner in its first seven games, and 7-foot-1 center Jordan Dickerson replaced Jack in the rotation for the next seven games, including the Big Ten opener against Wisconsin.

Chambers used both lineups in two Big Ten games. Travis came off the bench, with Thorpe starting in his place, in a 50-46 loss to Rutgers.

After giving up nine second-half 3-pointers in an overtime loss to Purdue, Chambers started small the last two games.

“I’m very optimistic about the change that we made on how we’re defending right now,” Chambers said. “We did a good job rebounding this game (against Rutgers), not so good at Michigan State, so rebounding’s still a concern of mine.

“But I like the smaller lineup and I like the rotation that I’m getting more comfortable with bringing guys off the bench, and they have a good understanding when they’re going in now.”

Taylor ‘day-to-day’

After suffering a sprain to his right knee Saturday, Taylor’s status is uncertain for Wednesday’s game against Minnesota.

“The way he’s acting, he wants to play,” Chambers said. “But we have to protect our players and our student-athletes, so we’ll make the right decision for Brandon and his future.”

Taylor left the game against Rutgers due to the injury with 9:45 left. He finished with 16 points on 6 of 10 shooting in 26 minutes. Taylor is second on the team in scoring with 9.9 points per game.

“I would say day-to-day right now,” Chambers said. “I believe he had it X-rayed today, so I’ll know more tomorrow.”

No timetable for Johnson

Penn State’s John Johnson has been suspended since Jan. 12, and Chambers isn’t sure when the guard will be back with the team.

“Not at this point,” Chambers said. “I’m still waiting on a few things.”

Johnson was suspended for “conduct inconsistent with team standards and values.” He averaged 7.4 points in the first 16 games this season.

In four games without Johnson, guard Devin Foster has seen more minutes. Foster has played in the last three games and averaged 13.7 minutes.

Chambers proud of All-Star

Chambers has remained close with former Villanova guard Kyle Lowry over the years.

Lowry played for the Wildcats from 2004-06 when Chambers was a member of the Villanova coaching staff. Now in his ninth season in the NBA, the Toronto Raptors guard was voted to start for the Eastern Conference in the All-Star Game.

“We texted together the other night,” Chambers said. “I couldn’t be more proud of him. Where he started, I mean he was 6-foot, just tough as nails but couldn’t shoot. But just a competitor. He’s got something inside him, something in that gut that not many kids have.”

The All-Star Game is Feb. 15 at Madison Square Garden. Lowry received 805,290 votes from fans to beat Miami’s Dwayne Wade (789,839). It will be his first All-Star appearance. Lowry is averaging 19.6 points, 7.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds.

“We stayed in touch and we remained very close,” Chambers said. “It’s exciting to see a 28-year-old, 29-year-old young man develop like that into an All-Star.”