Penn State (Last season: 15-16, 7-11, #108 Pomeroy ranking): Penn State was all set to have a good season, until about 7 minutes into the first half against Wisconsin. Although the season had a slow start, the Nittany Lions had strung together 7 consecutive victories, including a road win at Illinois. But while going after a rebound, Geary Claxton tore his ACL, and his senior season was lost. In an instant, the Nittany Lions faced the prospect of playing the rest of the season without one of the best players in school history, and the unquestioned leader of the team.
Without its star, Penn State didn't exactly play well, but they did get their fair share of wins. Despite the fact that the Nittany Lions posted the second-worst efficiency margin in conference games, they finished with 7 wins, finishing ahead of Iowa, Illinois, and Michigan, each of whom had better efficiency. All but one of Penn State's conference wins were by 9 points or less. Four of their seven wins were by 4 points or less. Furthermore, Penn State lost by 15 or more points five times. Close games have the same effect on the standings as blowouts, but are often decided by a bounce of a ball, or the whistle of a referee. If this preview seems harsh, it's because the numbers say that Penn State played like a 10th place team last season, even if the standings told a different story.
Penn State was very short last season. The tallest player that saw 20 minutes or more last season was 6-6 freshman David Jackson. Normally, opponents would seek to pound the ball inside against such a height disadvantage, but Penn State's zone defense kept things out on the perimeter. Of course, that doesn't help much when opponents shoot 35.6% from behind the arc. No doubt, Penn State was sagging in that zone, determined not to be exploited on the inside. Also, with Claxton out, there was not a lot of experienced depth, so coach Ed DeChellis likely wanted to avoid getting his post players into foul trouble.
Penn State figures to get taller this season, as 6-9 sophomore Andrew Jones figures to get more minutes. Also, 6-10 transfer Andrew Ott will be eligible at midseason. That said, DeChellis has been playing zone for as long as I can remember, so the defense might not change all that much. But with more depth on the interior, DeChellis might be more willing to stretch that zone and challenge perimeter shots a bit more this season.
On offense, Penn State just needs to shoot better. They were 46.7% on two pointers (which isn't terribly surprising given their lack of height), 34% on three pointers, and just 62.2% on free throws. The Nittany Lions actually rebounded well and took care of the ball last season, so if they can learn to shoot it a bit better, big gains can be made. And that brings us to the focal point of Penn State's offense - Talor Battle. The slight (5-11, 160 lbs) freshman had a very uneven season. On the year, it looks like a disaster. He took a ton of shots (23.7%), and bricked a lot of them (42.3 eFG, including 28.4% on 3Ps). Although he took care of the ball very well for a freshman, his inability to put the ball in the bucket grinded the Penn State offense to a halt.
Or did it? A closer look reveals that Battle really picked up his play in conference games, which were also Penn State's toughest opponents. He took even more shots (25.8%), but this time, he was making more of them (46.3 eFG, including 32.7% on 3Ps). The narrative of "freshmen improves as he becomes more comfortable against better competition" is an easy one to write, but is it true? On the season, Battle shot 68.7% on his FTs, and it wasn't much different in conference games. While this doesn't rule him out as a deadeye shooter, it certainly doesn't prove it at this point either. Which Battle shows up next season goes a long way in determining the Nittany Lions' success.
A big piece of good news is that the team returns 77.5% of the minutes from last year, so it should take another step forward. The Lions will likely end up with a similar record as last season, assuming their good luck doesn't repeat itself. If Battle becomes the star that DeChellis envisioned when he recruited the point guard, this team could be punching a Dance ticket within the next couple of years.
Projected Penn State rotation (statistics are for conference games only):