Going into this season, Brandon Taylor was more confident in his game than he’d ever been.
The Penn State senior forward was taking and making tough shots in practice and pick-up games. It didn’t matter what type of shot he took, Taylor thought it was going in.
That wasn’t the case the first three years of his career.
“I take a shot and I think so bad in my mind that it’s going in and then when it doesn’t go in, that it just kills me and you can see it affect the rest of my play on defense or missing a rebound and getting a dumb foul,” Taylor said of his past mindset in October. “And that’s just something that with age, I feel like I’ve gotten better at.”
Taylor spent part of his offseason working on keeping a clear head to avoid those lapses in games. He also focused on his defense and on developing his mid-range skills to become a more complete player.
Five months after the team’s media day, Penn State beat Illinois in double overtime to close out a regular season in which Taylor emerged as a complete player and respected leader. Taylor led the Nittany Lions in scoring with 16.3 points per game and rebounding with 6.5 per game and helping his team finish 16-15 overall and 7-11 in the Big Ten, the best conference record under coach Patrick Chambers.
Penn State earned a first-round bye in the Big Ten tournament as the No. 10 seed and will take on No. 7 seed Ohio State (19-12, 11-7) in the second round at 6:30 p.m. Thursday in Indianapolis. The winner advances to take on No. 2 seed Michigan State at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
The Nittany Lions clinched their conference tournament bye with their win over Illinois.
After the game, Chambers and Taylor embraced as the alma mater started to play.
“He was just saying that he’s proud of me, he’s proud of everybody,” Taylor said after the game. “And I feel the same way.”
Taylor weighed 260 pounds when he arrived at Penn State. He needed to reshape his body and get used to the level of play he’d be facing in the Big Ten.
Going into this season, he also needed to reshape his game.
Chambers said Taylor was a 3-point shooter his first three years — 3-point attempts accounted for at least 53.8 percent of his shot attempts in each of those seasons. He embraced the change, doing most of his damage from the post this season.
It led to increased production.
Taylor is averaging 7.2 points per game more than he did last year. He has knocked down a career-best 35.6 percent of his 3-pointers, but the long-range shots have accounted for just 32.2 percent of his shot attempts. His commitment to playing inside generated more free-throw attempts (125) this season than in his first three seasons combined (111).
“Now I can’t get him to shoot 3s,” Chambers said. “All he wants to do is post up.”
Taylor said he improved most as a leader.
To excel in that role, Taylor communicated more with his teammates.
“Brandon’s a quiet guy. This year, he’s been the complete opposite,” Penn State guard Shep Garner said. “He’s very, very vocal this year. He pulls the best out of everybody. He’s like an extension of coach, and I think that’s the biggest difference between this year and any other year.
“He’s actually talking and demanding 100 percent effort out of everybody that steps on the court.”
Chambers said Taylor “put the program on his back” this season.
The senior carried the Nittany Lions to their best conference finish under Chambers, and he earned third-team All-Big Ten honors from the media.
“We’ve showed that we can develop players, especially him where he started as a freshman and where he is as a senior,” Chambers said. “There’s a guy who trusted the process and did something special and he will forever be up there with Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill for what he has done for this program in my mind.”
The coach called Taylor’s development an incredible transformation.
Taylor went from a 260-pound 3-point shooter to a 225-pound post player. He played with confidence this season after overthinking shots in his first three years. He became the team’s best player and its leader.
After the win over Illinois, when Chambers and Taylor embraced, the coach thanked him for everything.
“We’ve been through a lot, me and him,” Taylor said. “This four years has been a wild ride.”
Penn State (16-15, 7-11) vs. Ohio State (19-12, 11-7)
Time: 6:30 p.m.
Arena: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Radio: WQWK 1450