Yay! An uninspiring preseason is behind us and Wisconsin (9-4) opens Big Ten Conference play at home against the Penn State (8-4) on Thursday night. Surely, there is nowhere to go but up, right?
Thought losing Josh Gasser was horrible? Try being the Nittany Lions, who lost all-league guard Tim Frazier for the season when he blew out his Achilles just six minutes into game #4 for Penn State. Though the two teams' records are nearly identical at this point, Badger fans are hoping to see Wisconsin exert its dominance at the Kohl Center in a meaningful game -- and avoid getting even more banged up in the process.
I caught up with Chad Markulics of Black Shoe Diaries to get his take on the Big Ten opener.
B5Q: First off, is there anyway to explain the emotional letdown for the fan base after learning that Tim Frazier would miss the rest of the season? He was as close to a one-man band as the Big Ten has seen recently.
BSD: It sucked the wind right out of the season for a lot of people. There were thoughts of an NIT appearance, or if the cards fell right, a chance at being a bubble team for the Big Dance, but no one expects anything near that now (or at least I hope not for their sake). Now the mentality is "wait til next year" once again, but there might be something to that this time if Frazier can make a full recovery and obtain that medical redshirt, because I think there are some real Big Ten caliber pieces on this roster that just need a little seasoning.
B5Q: Who has stepped up in Frazier's absence? Has D.J. Newbill been everything you hoped he'd be?
BSD: For a guy who's been sitting out of games and preparing to play off the ball for two years in practice, I don't think it would be reasonable to ask for much more from Newbill. He's not a natural point guard by any means, but he's managed to keep his turnover count at a reasonable level (3.9:3.6 A/TO ratio) while still leading the team in scoring. It would've been neat to see what he and Frazier could have done in more than just three and a half games, but hopefully we'll be able to see an even better version of that next year.
B5Q: Tell our readers what you learned about Penn State so far through the non-conference portion of the schedule.
BSD: On the plus side, this is the first Penn State team in while that isn't dependent on just one player to score. They've gotten relatively big games from a host of guys—last year, if Frazier wasn't having a good game, they had almost no shot of winning. Now, there are more players capable of carrying more of the scoring load. Whether that will translate over to the B1G, we shall see.
Although Newbill's transition to the point has been rather clean, PSU will struggle against the full-court press. He's had some issues with ill-timed turnovers late in games, and most of those have come against heavy defensive pressure in the backcourt. Without any real point guards on the roster, closing out games could be a major issue.
B5Q: Without Frazier, what became the new focus, or goals, for the Nittany Lions this year? Has Pat Chambers been able to keep momentum and morale high regarding the future of PSU hoops?
BSD: Chambers is one of most upbeat and enthusiastic coaches I have ever seen, especially at Penn State. You'd be hard pressed to find anyone with something bad to say about the job he's done so far, and that's a great sign considering he's more than likely going to have back-to-back cellar dwelling seasons in the conference. As I stated above, the fan base's expectations have lowered from perhaps being an NIT team to "wait til next year" again, but the feeling is that next year could be really special (in context of recent PSU hoops history, of course). Personally, I would be satisfied with a few wins in conference including one nice little upset win at home. They're usually good for one of those.
B5Q: Speaking of the future, some youngsters are gaining valuable experience this season at the very least. Talk about kids like Ross Travis and Brandon Taylor and what they've been contributing.
BSD: Travis is a sophomore that still hasn't quite found his way on offense, but he's got some ability on the inside at 6'6" 225, especially on the glass. Chambers often refers to him as the "Junkyard Dog," so that should tell you something about his game.
Brandon Taylor is a 6'7", 240 lb freshman but his stats don't really read like a power forward's. He's been the team's most consistent three-point shooter and while he's often been quick to get into foul trouble, the progression that he's already made through 12 games is evident. His post game is coming along, and he's already a good rebounder even though he only averages 3.6 boards in 21 mpg. His skill set reads more Wisconsin than Penn State, and he's probably the guy I'm most excited about on this team in terms of the future.
B5Q: Wisconsin has rebounded poorly against top competition, but feasted against lower echelon teams, so the Badgers' rebounding numbers are quite good on average. I noticed PSU is the top team in the country at corralling defensive rebounds, surrendering offensive boards on only 23.1% of possessions. To what (or to whom) do you attribute the great defensive rebounding performance?
BSD: That's probably a testament to Pat Chambers's coaching style. The players have genuinely bought into his system, which preaches the value of every possession. The coaching staff keeps track of "Attitude Points" in games and practices, which is basically a running tally of the rebounds, steals, and hustle plays each guy makes. It sounds kind of silly, but the players really do buy into the system and it pays off on the glass.
B5Q: Penn State has been hurt this year by a disparity behind the 3-point line, where opponents are shooting much better (39%) than the Lions (29.1%). During PSU's current four-game winning streak, they haven't shot the lights out from three, but the overall shooting has been hovering around 50%. Are the Nitts settling into a groove on offense?
BSD: First off, I love that you spelled it "Nitts" with two 't's. We need to start using that at BSD.
If they keep this shooting up, I'll be surprised. They haven't played the best competition during this four-game stretch, and the best wins they've put together (Providence and Bucknell) thus far have been real grinders. And that's when they're at their best without Frazier running the show and getting open looks for guys. Think that wonderful 2011 B1G Tournament game against you guys, which was downright magical.
B5Q: How do you see Thursday's game playing out? Penn State has been railroaded a few times already and this is it's first true road game if I'm not mistaken.
BSD: They got shellacked by La Salle at the Palestra if you want to count that as a road game, but other than that they haven't had a real test on the road. They were dismal away from home last year, and I don't expect that to change, especially not in the Kohl Center. Wisconsin isn't quite having the year some expected, but you're still Wisconsin and we're still Penn State. For now. 73-56, Bucky takes it. George Marshall will make 7 threes.
Thanks again to Chad for his time. You can follow him on Twitter @Chad_Markulics.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||F||Sasa Borovnjak, Jr.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F||Brandon Taylor, Fr.|
|Sam Dekker, Fr.||F||Ross Travis, So.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||Jermaine Marshall, Jr.|
|Traevon Jackson, So.||G||D.J. Newbill, So.|
KenPom win probability: 95% (70-53 W) 61 possessions
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For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.