It's safe to say that most Buzz on Broad readers are from the Philadelphia area and that most college basketball fans in Philly follow the Big Five. That includes the LaSalle Explorers, who play host to the Penn State Nittany Lions Wednesday night at the Palestra.
You're undoubtedly familiar with Buzz on Broad's Jovan Alford and his coverage of college basketball on this site. But you are probably not familiar with Penn State's men's basketball program, and with good reason. The team has only made one NCAA Tournament in the last decade, that being its first round exit to Temple in 2011. Even I was unfamiliar with the team before moving from the Philadelphia area to State College to start at Penn State in 2009.
But there are signs in Happy Valley that the tide may be turning. The program may be headed to relevancy, not only in the Big Ten, but in the Philadelphia area as well. With new Philly recruits coming in and more games being scheduled against in-state teams, Penn State could be on the radar soon.
The Nittany Lions beat Penn 58-47 Saturday in State College. Now, the team travels to Philadelphia to take on LaSalle. So it's as good a time as ever to learn a little bit about Penn State's basketball team.
Head Coach: Patrick Chambers
A large part of the irrelevancy of Penn State basketball has to do with its previous head coach. Ed DeChellis coached Penn State for eight seasons before resigning in 2011 to take the job at Navy. During his tenure, DeChellis essentially spent his time finding new ways to define the word "underwhelming." His teams played a slow halfcourt offense with little motion, and played plain man-to-man defense. They lingered near the bottom of the Big Ten, though would occasionally make a decent run: in 2009, his team won the NIT, and in 2011 they made the NCAA Tournament for the first time. DeChellis was a terribly nice man, if not somewhat awkward. But his overall tenure would be considered a failure if there had been any expectations to begin with.
Enter Patrick Chambers.
Chambers grew up in Newtown Square as the youngest of 12 kids. He played high school at Episcopal Academy and walked on at Philadelphia Textile, becoming the all-time assists leader under head coach Herb Magee. He would begin his coaching career as an assistant at Episcopal while working his day job as the lead salesman at a company he ran with three of his brothers in Malvern.
In 2002, Chambers was stabbed in a bar fight by a man who thought Chambers was hitting on his wife, who was actually an old friend of his from high school. The near-death experience inspired Chambers to devote more time to coaching and to try to make it in the college ranks. He caught the eye of Villanova head coach Jay Wright in 2004, who hired him as the program's director of operations in 2004. Within a year, Wright added him to his bench as an assistant coach. By the time he was done with the Wildcats, he was the team's associate head coach and one of Wright's most trusted staff members.
His success at Villanova landed him his first head coaching job in 2009, when he was hired by Boston University. Within two seasons, Chambers led Boston U to a conference title and an NCAA Tournament berth, and his 16th-seeded Terriers fell to Kansas. His impressive work at Boston put him on Penn State's radar, and they hired him as head coach in the summer of 2011.
Chambers has had some ups and downs so far at Penn State, but to his credit, most of the downs are typical for any new head coach. Chambers got more out of a weak roster in 2012 than many thought was possible, earning four Big Ten wins after four of the team's five starters graduated in 2011. However, there was a bit of an exodus: guards Trey Lewis and Matt Glover transferred, as well as forward Pete Alexis. He also lost forward Billy Oliver, who retired due to concussion problems.
Chambers is fiery on the sidelines. He is loud and emotional: he will scream at players who look lost on the floor, and will hug a player who looks like he's finally putting it all together. His activity on the sideline is the most immediately striking difference between his tenure and that of DeChellis; his team's all-out effort on defense, applying full court presses and diving for loose balls takes a bit more time to fully recognize. But Chambers is bringing a new look and a new attitude to the team.
Most of Chambers' roster is still DeChellis recruits, but four new players this season are all Chambers' products, and five more will look to join next season. Here are some of the relevant names on the roster:
Tim Frazier (Senior Guard) [OUT FOR THE SEASON - EXPECTED TO USE MEDICAL REDSHIRT]
Frazier was the only returning starter from DeChellis' tenure. The point guard showed great athleticism and good ballhandling, but was by all accounts a poor shooter and by no means a scorer. That all changed under Chambers. It was Frazier's vast improvement from his sophomore to junior season that first showed what Chambers could do better than DeChellis. Frazier continued to run the offense from the point, but vastly improved at scoring. He could drive to the basket and finish while keeping defenders honest by pulling up for a very effective runner. He also developed a solid three-point shot. Frazier was expected to be an All-Big Ten player in 2012-13, but he ruptured his Achilles tendon just four games into the season and will miss the rest of the year. He is expected to return next season as a redshirt senior, and if healthy, will cause serious problems for Big Ten opponents.
DJ Newbill (RS Sophomore Guard)
Newbill was the first "recruit" under Chambers, agreeing to transfer from Southern Mississippi last season, which he had to redshirt by NCAA rule. Newbill is also Chambers' first "Philly guy," having played at Strawberry Mansion. The 6-foot-4 guard was supposed to create a top-of-the-line backcourt with Frazier, but his injury has significantly changed Newbill's role. Newbill was originally supposed to play the wing, looking for mid-range jumpers and lanes to the basket with Frazier distributing. Now, Newbill is forced into the point guard role for the team. Ballhandling is not his strength, and pressure defenses have gotten to him. But he looked much more comfortable bringing the ball up against Penn and will settle into the role with time. Newbill's ability to get to the basket gives the team a new dynamic on offense, and as teams wear down in the second half, he seems to step up even more.
Jermaine Marshall (RS Junior Guard)
Marshall is a maddening player. He is probably the team's best jump shooter, but his shot selection and overreliance on the three-pointer leaves many fans scratching their heads. Chambers is finally getting him to drive to the basket more, but his lack of interest in doing so at times manifests itself in half-hearted attempts and blocked shots. His offensive game needs to improve, and should now that he no longer has Frazier to rely upon. Defensively, Marshall is a tremendous shot blocked despite only being 6-foot-4. His freak athleticism, paired with a jump shooting ability and better IQ on the offensive end will make him a more effective player.
Brandon Taylor (Freshman Forward)
Taylor is probably the biggest surprise of the season so far for the Nittany Lions. The 6-foot-7 freshman has shot the lights out from three in the early going, and has kept Penn State in games against Bucknell and Penn that it looked doomed to lose. He also has shown a solid ability to rebound the ball and pass from the wing. However, he has shown defensive lapses and takes bad fouls. In every game, Chambers has had to limit his minutes due to foul trouble. But Taylor is a freshman, so such problems are to be expected. The fact that he is already an effective starter for this team is very encouraging for Chambers.
Jon Graham (RS Sophomore Forward)
Graham is a stud on the defensive end. He refuses to back down and avoids taking bad fouls. He can block shots and is rarely out of position. At 6-foot-8, he is Chambers' best option to defend opposing big men. But Graham's body of work on the offensive end is often embarrassing. While he has developed some solid post moves, he cannot finish and put the ball in the basket. He also often drops passes, even when he is open. Graham will always get time as long as he is doing his thing on defense, but his offensive game needs to improve. Against Penn, we saw flashes of it in the second half: on back-to-back possessions he was able to use good post moves to make layups. Chambers was so excited that he ran out and hugged Graham when a timeout was called. Penn State needs more of that from Graham.
Ross Travis (Sophomore Forward)
Travis is in an interesting position on this roster. At 6-foot-6, he is an undersized forward. But he rebounds well and loves going to the basket. He will lead the team in highlight reel dunks by season's end. But he often settles for jump shots, which is not his game. Defensively his athleticism allows him to make a lot of plays, but he needs to learn more about his positioning. He is often exposed on screens and help defense situations and cannot afford to be out of position as often as he is. With some improved defensive ability and better shot selection, Travis can contribute to this team.
Nick Colella (Senior Guard)
Colella is probably the gutsiest player on the team: he takes charges and dives for every loose ball. But he is not particularly fast or strong, and he gets burned on defense because of it. Offensively, his only ability is supposedly the three-point shot, but he has been largely ineffective at shooting in his time on the team. He is a walk-on who transferred from a Division III branch campus of Penn State (Behrend), and his story is a good one. But the fact that he gets about 20 minutes a night for Penn State says a lot about how weak the bench is.
Sasa Borovnjak (RS Junior Forward)
Borovnjak is terrible. He only gets minutes because the team is so thin at the forward position. His only attribute is his size: he is 6-foot-9. But he is slow and his poor footwork, and consistently shows up late to plays, often still committing bad fouls. Offensively, he has bad hands and looks as though he could not make a layup if locked in the gym. A typical line for him is something akin to 18 minutes, 0-4 shooting (all on layups), a few fouls and a couple turnovers. Borovnjak, with his size, will grab a couple rebounds and can at times keep the ball out of the post when he is positioning himself correctly. But good teams take advantage of him at will when he is in the game.
Donovon Jack (Freshman Forward)
Jack is a freshman, and unlike Taylor, he looks like one. He plays hesitant and looks afraid to make mistakes. At 6-foot-9, the team hopes down the road that he can be a more effective bench player than Borovnjak, but he needs time. He also need to bulk up: despite his height, he weighs just 205 pounds, and that thinness prevents him from effectively battling down low.
Akosa Maduegbunam (Freshman Guard)
Maduegbunam (pronounced Mad-uh-way-bu-num since I'm sure you're lost) will get time as a defender when other players are in foul trouble. The freshman is purely a project, a great athlete who needs massive upgrades on offense. The few times he has touched the ball this season, he has looked uncomfortable and turnover-prone.
The rest of the players will not see the floor. Normally you would see 6-foot-11 sophomore Pat Ackerman, but he is suspended indefinitely for an unknown violation of team rules.
As you watch the game between LaSalle and Penn State tonight, know that in a couple of years, Penn State should be competitive with both the Big Ten and the Big Five on a regular basis. You're getting in on the ground floor.
Dan Smith is Buzz on Broad's Lead Contributor and Insider for Penn State sports. He is also the Executive Editor for Penn State's ComRadio. Contact him through email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @ThatDanSmith.