Big Ten basketball previews: Penn State Nittany Lions

Big Ten basketball previews: Penn State Nittany Lions
November 8, 2013, 9:30 am
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Vinnie Duber

Gotham City is not real, so there's no telling what city it's supposed to be that Batman and Robin are protecting.

It could be University Park, Pa., for all we know.

Whether or not it's Batman and Robin, Nittany Lions head coach Patrick Chambers believes there's at least one dynamic duo in University Park: D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier, Penn State's starting back court.

"Obviously it's exciting to have that dynamic duo to put a Penn State jersey on this year," Chambers said last week at Big Ten basketball media day. "I think D.J. learned so much about the point guard position in general. And now you have two guys that can make plays for teammates. You can't just focus on one or the other. You've got to focus on both those guys. There's gotta be a lot of space on the floor for other guys to step up and make plays."

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Newbill and Frazier might not be caped crusaders, but they are looking to restore a little positivity to a Penn State program that hasn't had much luck in the world of basketball. Since joining the Big Ten ahead of the 1992-93 season, the Lions have reached the NCAA tournament just thrice and won just two games in the Big Dance, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen in 2001.

Newbill, the redshirt junior point guard, and Frazier, the graduate student shooting guard, were Penn State's leading scorers a year ago, both averaging 16.3 points per game. But while Newbill started all 31 of the Lions' contests, Frazier played in just four games, suffering an injury that kept him out the remainder of the season. But Chambers is thrilled with the way Frazier has recovered, saying he's 100 percent for the upcoming season.

And the two guards have a strong relationship, too, which helps them be very effective on the floor.

"I think Tim and me, we compliment each other real well in the back court," Newbill said. "The main thing is that we appreciate each other, what we do for each other, so by getting each other shots, opening the floor up. So you could say we're a dynamic duo."

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The thing with dynamic duos, though, is that eventually someone has to be Batman and someone has to be Robin. But, as Chambers explains, that's not the case with Newbill and Frazier. They're both fine being Robin.

"We've had those guys play together since the first practice in August because they've got to learn how to play together," Chambers said. "And I think they don't mind if one's a leading scorer and — they just want to win basketball games. They're at that stage. They're mature. They're a little bit older. D.J.'s a redshirt junior, so technically he's a senior in his mentality and approach. So I think you're going to see an older veteran backcourt that kind of has been through a lot.

"Moving forward, that should be a backcourt that a lot of teams should fear."

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Last year

Penn State posted an all-too-common awful record in Big Ten play a season ago. The Lions finished 10-21 overall with a 2-16 record in conference. But, they did score a huge upset win over then-fourth-ranked Michigan in University Park on Feb. 27. That was Penn State's first Big Ten win of the season after losing its first 14 conference contests.

At the helm

Last season marked Patrick Chambers' second at Penn State, and his team actually won two fewer games than it did in his first season. Though this year, mainly thanks to an experienced back court, Chambers is expecting bigger things in 2013-14. This is only Chambers' fifth season as a college basketball head coach. Before leading the Nittany Lions, he led the Boston Terriers to back-to-back postseason appearances, including a trip to the NCAA tournament in 2011.

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Departed and returned

The Lions lose a pair of starters in Jermaine Marshall and Sasa Borovnjak, who ranked behind Newbill and Frazier as the team's third and fourth leading scorers. The good news is the return of Newbill and Frazier, as well as Ross Travis, Penn State's leading rebounder from a year ago who hauled in 7.4 rebounds per game. Fellow forward Brandon Taylor, who made 18 starts last season, is also back.

Fresh faces

The Lions have four freshmen on the roster this season: Payton Banks, Graham Woodward, Geno Thorpe and Julian Moore. Chambers acknowledged these guys aren't the type of star-ready recruits that some of his conference-mates recruited, but he has high hopes for them nonetheless when it comes to challenging his returning players.

"They're freshmen. They're not top-five freshmen recruiting class. They're freshmen," Chambers said. "They've got to come every day with the right approach, the right mentality, to get better, to earn minutes on the floor and to push our veterans. And they've done that. They've pushed Tim, D.J., Ross, every single day, and that's what those guys want. We have healthy competition in practice. And it's exciting to see."

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Non-conference tests

After a handful of early-season games against lesser competition, Penn State will participate in the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn. That in-season tournament will pit the Lions against St. John's and either Georgia Tech or Mississippi. Then they travel for their Big Ten/ACC Challenge match against in-state rival Pittsburgh.

Season outlook

A much-hyped player like Frazier might draw some good attention to Penn State, and having him on the floor for more than four games should give the Nittany Lions some more wins, too. But, as Newbill explained, for a struggling program like this, the attitude needs to come before the wins.

"Basically just come out every day with a great attitude, ready to work, be the best team we can be by the end of the year," Newbill said of the team's goals. "We don't set goals like wins and losses. We just figure that if we come out and play Penn State basketball with a great attitude, that record will take care of itself."

Penn State tips off its season Saturday afternoon vs. Wagner.

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This is the third in a series of 2013-14 Big Ten basketball previews, which will be rolling out over the next few days as the college basketball season gets into full swing. Be sure to check out all the previews to get ready for your favorite Big Ten team's upcoming season.

Thursday, Nov. 7: Illinois and Northwestern

Friday, Nov. 8: Penn State and Nebraska

Saturday, Nov. 9: Purdue and Minnesota

Sunday, Nov. 10: Iowa and Indiana

Monday, Nov. 11: Michigan and Wisconsin

Tuesday, Nov. 12: Ohio State and Michigan State