So, Frank Kaminsky went Joe College again and talked a little smack this week. Not direct smack, more like vague mockery. Penn State took offense. Now we have an interesting subplot to the beginning of the 2014-15 Big Ten season.
Wisconsin (12-1) opens the conference slate as the overwhelming league favorite, fresh off a 12-point win over Buffalo that featured a superb all-around performance by Kaminsky. Penn State, off to a surprising (sort of) 12-1 start of its own, has annually been one of the Big Ten's also-ran programs that would kill for an NCAA tournament bid. That is not normally a recipe for a highly-anticipated opener.
Yet, there is reason for UW to be concerned. The Nittany Lions come in with a chip on their shoulders, whether manufactured or not. It's a noon game on New Year's Eve with the students on break, so the Kohl Center atmosphere will be lacking. On top of that, Penn State usually plays Wisconsin tough -- and PSU has it's best player in years at his peak.
I reached out to Eric Gibson of Black Shoe Diaries, to get his take on this year's Penn State team.
B5Q: Let's tackle this right away: Frank Kaminsky criticized the "We Are" chant the other night on Twitter. Two questions for you. First, is it universally accepted in Happy Valley that this was a direct attack on Penn State instead of a general statement? Secondly, do you now hate Kaminsky because of this?
Black Shoe Diaries (Eric): Any Penn State fan that sees that will take it as an attack on Penn State. Penn Staters are a very proud fan base (if that wasn't evident post-you-know-what). The "We Are" chant represents the pride we all share in our community, the university and its sports teams. The only thing worse he could have done to offend some Penn State folks is to throw shade at Paterno.
But me personally? I love Kaminsky. He's second only to Mike Bruesewitz. There are far worse folks that could be getting as much ink as him in college basketball. And I think most reasonable people understand that Newbill/Kaminsky know each other personally, and this twitter feud, if you want to call it that, is more of a joke than serious trash-talking. That said, both teams are very competitive, so it wouldn't surprise me if things get chippy if Penn State is somehow able to frustrate the Badgers at all on Wednesday.
B5Q: After Talor Battle and Tim Frazier, it should come as no surprise to anyone that another Penn State lead guard has become a world-swallowing offensive force that can strap his team on his back. This year's version of D.J. Newbill is a more efficient, super-charged version of the one we saw last year, averaging 21.4 points, 3.2 assists and shooting 39.3% on threes. Can you compare and contrast Newbill to the smaller, quicker Battle and Frazier?
Eric: Newbill's game is nothing like those guys and frankly, he's better. He's not even making it a debate any more with the way he has played so far his senior season. He can score from anywhere at any time, and he doesn't need much help doing it. His efficiency numbers speak for themselves (I'm still amazed he managed 0.92 PPP his first year in the league playing out of position after replacing Tim Frazier on such a dreadful team). Obviously Talor Battle was a volume scorer, but we saw his game really blossom when Frazier was capable of setting him up behind the arc his senior year. Newbill doesn't need help. He just gets his own buckets from a wide variety of moves, including efficient mid-range pull-ups and devastating hesitation moves. My only concern with Newbill is how well his 3FG% going to hold up in Big Ten play. He is an absolute joy to watch and an All-American talent. It's only debatable because he's in State College.
B5Q: Facing Kaminsky is a tall order for most defenses. Yet in 7'1" shotblocker Jordan Dickerson, the Nittany Lions at least have a long body that can make interior shots more difficult and soak up fouls. Though he posted career highs in minutes (24) and blocks (6) against George Washington, Dickerson doesn't log many minutes. What keeps Dickerson from playing more? How do you see his matchup with Kaminsky playing out?
Eric: Well, he's always limited offensively, and then there are games where he's just not with it defensively, either. Fouls and conditioning also have a direct impact on his minutes, as well. But he has had some dominating performances seemingly out of nowhere that continues to give us hope for Penn State's first rim protector since Calvin Booth. He was monumental in the George Washington and Akron games which just so happen to be PSU's two best wins so far. He also was a huge catalyst in Penn State's road upset of Ohio State last year. Is he ready to shut down Kaminsky? Haha, nope! Penn State's going to have their hands full with Wisconsin's front-line, as many other Big Ten teams. I expect to see a lot more 2-3 zone from PSU, because the bigs are so incredibly foul-happy. It wouldn't surprise me to see all three of PSU's posts get into first-half foul trouble -- Dickerson, Donovon Jack and Julian Moore.
B5Q: A 12-1 record has Penn State knocking on the doorstep of last season's win total (16) already and is the best start by PSU since 1995. Are fans allowing themselves to think NCAA bid yet or are you being more cautious?
Eric: The program's history keeps all loyal followers cynical in their beliefs, but I'm letting myself think NCAA's. Not that I expect it, but Penn State has a better team with more experience and legitimate depth that I've never seen in State College before. They run 8-deep with two more promising RS freshmen that are upping their contributions (although we'll see if they get squeezed out in Big Ten play). They are also one of the most experienced teams in the conference.
Coming into this season, there was such a huge gap behind Wisconsin, I never understood why nobody seemed to think PSU could compete in this middle tier. I get that this program doesn't have a history of replacing Tim Frazier-like players the following year, but Pat Chambers' program has clearly been trending up. They won 6 Big Ten games last year with a -0.07 efficiency margin (PSU's 5th best conference mark since 2000). Now, the Big Ten middle is even worse than originally expected, so why can't this team overachieve by a game or two and end up at 9 Big Ten wins? They'd be right in the thick of the NCAA discussion with that number. I get that Penn State = NCAA Tournament is hard for many to compute, but it's not too farfetched a situation this season. If Iowa doesn't want to take advantage of the window opening with apparent down years from Michigan/MSU/OSU, why not Penn State?
B5Q: Discuss the development of Penn State's starting forwards Brandon Taylor and Ross Travis. Travis seems like an undersized, throwback power forward. And I cannot believe Taylor is only a junior -- feels like he's a redshirt senior. Have those two reached expectations the coaching staff had for them?
Eric: Not sure what the coaching staff expectations are, but those two can be the biggest difference-makers to Penn State's season. Brandon Taylor has the green light from Chambers, but he doesn't always make sound decisions or take good shots in key situations. I was expecting him to be the surefire #2 scorer for this team, but he had an awful November. He's trending up with some better games in December, but as always, the Big Ten will tell the tale. He just takes far too many 3's for a streaky, 30% 3-pt shooter for my liking (however, when he gets hot from out there, PSU typically wins).
Travis is another dilemma entirely. There are times where literally all he can do on the court is rebound. While that's a very valuable skill (and Travis is very good at it), Penn State doesn't have the talent across the board to have him suck up the minutes he used to with his limitations. Even in his senior year, he still remains an enigma on offense, so it's kinda hard at this point to place more expectation on a career low usage, low efficiency player.
B5Q: With Geno Thorpe and freshman Shep Garner contributing, the PSU backcourt looks to be in good hands for the future. But a typical Nittany Lion weakness is the lack of a dynamic scorer inside. In year four of the Pat Chambers era, does he have the type of pieces he needs to play the way he wants?
Eric: Chambers is not a system guy. He hails from Jay Wright's coaching tree, so he definitely loves his guards and his 4-out-1-in motion offense. But he primarily tries to adapt to the players and their strengths in his team's style of play. For instance, many will criticize Penn State's offense because of their lack of assists, but that's because DJ Newbill effectively eats so many possessions off the dribble. Now, does Pat Chambers have the guys he wants? Absolutely not, because it's incredibly difficult to recruit when AAU coaches can't be bothered when they hear "Penn State". But he's easily the best recruiter this program has had, and most of us can't wait to see what he can do with some kind of winning pedigree attached to his resume. There's already been substantial progress despite no NCAA/NIT appearances in three seasons.
B5Q: Wisconsin has seven top-100 RPI wins, while Penn State has two -- plus a double overtime loss to top-50 Charlotte. What are your predictions for how big of a factor PSU can be during the Big Ten conference season when they will be tested every night?
Eric: I get that Penn State has played a Charmin-soft schedule. There's not a lot of solid conclusions you can draw from playing such substandard competition. They haven't looked particularly good in most of their wins, and there's definitely quite a bit of luck attached to their 12-1 record. But Penn State continues to close its talent gap to the rest of the conference, and the leadership this team has reminds you of Jamelle Cornley in 2009. I also love how their conference schedule sets up with an easier front half compared to back half (post-12/31 obviously). It's quite possible PSU will be sitting at 16-4 (4-3) as the meat of the Big Ten season comes around. Make fun of Penn State's lack of basketball fans all you want, but with the Lions set up to play meaningful basketball into February, the Bryce Jordan Center will have a pulse this season. Outside of maybe the top 3-4 teams in this league, I don't know why any of these teams should have great confidence heading into their game at Happy Valley.
B5Q: Over/under on how many times Newbill will attempt to dunk on Kaminsky...?
Eric: Well, as you know, if the lane is there and he gets a step, you know he's coming at the hoop with authority. FK3 wouldn't be the first Wisconsin senior he put on a poster.
Wow, that "bit of luck" link to the end of the Cornell game is crazy -- thanks to Eric for bringing that to our attention. Other than their two meetings with Wisconsin this year, I wish his Nittany Lions luck. Follow Eric on Twitter @BSD_Eric or the BSD crew @BSDTweet for all things Penn State.
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