1. Penn State finished 12-1 in nonconference play, but have yet to win a B1G game this season. What went right during nonconference play, and what's been missing during Penn State's 0-3 conference start?
The discrepancy between the 12-1 non-conference run and the 0-3 conference start is undoubtedly due to the level of competition. Penn State played their best game of the season so far against a George Washington team that went on to beat Wichita State a few weeks later, but that result looks more and more like an outlier as the season wears on. As the naysayers wisely pointed out during the non-con, the Lions were having trouble beating a bunch of sub-150 RPI/KenPom teams. Mind you, they did win those games at a time when virtually the entire rest of the conference was getting upset on a nightly basis. So yeah, they largely took care of business but it didn't leave anyone with a definite sense of what this team was.
As far as things on the court that went right in the non-con, the emergence of freshman Shep Garner was probably the biggest and most pleasant surprise. Before the season everyone assumed JuCo transfer Devin Foster would back up D.J. Newbill at the point with Geno Thorpe playing shooting guard, but Garner has started every game at the one and he's probably been the most reliable player for Penn State that's not named Newbill, and he'll be counted on to shoulder even more of the load now that John Johnson is suspended for the foreseeable future.
2. Senior D.J. Newbill has been the unquestioned star of this Nittany Lions team. What does Newbill bring to the table that makes him so important to the team?
Penn State hasn't found that trustworthy second scorer yet, so Newbill has been counted on for 20 points a night as the main offensive threat. Opposing teams know that he's the one guy who can kill them, yet here he is leading the conference in overall scoring on some pretty efficient numbers - 21.3 ppg on 47% shooting (51% on twos, 38% on threes), and he's taking 30% of the team's shots. His ORtg (113.5) among the seven B1G players whose usage rates exceed 28% of possessions ranks second only to D'Angelo Russell (114.5) (all numbers per KenPom).
His go-to move (please don't tell Tom Crean until after the game) is splitting double-teams off the pick-and-roll (Exhibit A) He shouldn't be able to do that as a linebacker masquerading as a shooting guard, but he'll tiptoe through a crowd three or four times a night. If he's not getting to the rim, his mid-range game, especially near the elbows, has been pretty immaculate as well.
3. Newbill will be a force in the backcourt, but everyone knows that IU is undersized and undermanned in its frontcourt. Who in the Nittany Lions' frontcourt should the Hoosiers watch out for?
Donovon Jack seems to be finding his way a little after a poor conference season in 2014 and an equally disappointing non-con this season, but he's still liable to get into early foul trouble off the bench. He's a decent shot-blocker and a capable finisher at 6-9, but he's averaging 8.1 fouls per 40 minutes. As they say in the business, that's bad. Though he did play 20+ minutes without picking up a foul against Michigan last Tuesday.
7-1 Jordan Dickerson is a shot-alterer (words are fun!) and not much else at this point. Then there's Brandon Taylor and Ross Travis, two upperclassmen who haven't played like it. Taylor is in the midst of a massive shooting slump at 5-28 from the field in B1G play, and Travis, while never a good shooter, hasn't done much besides rebound in his last go-round in a Penn State uniform. If either one of these guys can pick up the slack, the Nittany Lions can make this one interesting.
4. Pat Chambers is in his fourth season in State College coaching hoops. How do fans feel about what Chambers has done at Penn State so far?
Penn State basketball is, well, Penn State basketball. When Chambers took the job in 2011, nobody expected him to turn a program with a low-caliber roster and no real recruiting pipelines into a winner overnight. He's doing his best with regards to the latter (the 2015 class is 33rd in the 247 Composite rankings), and that's what will ultimately get Penn State to take that next step in becoming a middle-of-the-pack B1G program. Ambitious, I know.
The on-court results have been frustrating, though, and this 0-3 start has brought out some negativity among the vocal minority. There's a part of the hoops fanbase which believes that the new AD, Sandy Barbour, should look to splash some of the upcoming BTN TV deal money the cash for a big name, but I don't think that's plausible or realistic. There's a more optimistic minority of fans that believes Chambers should be given a contract extension to aid in recruiting (his current deal is set to expire after next season, though there's some unnecessary confusion around that), and I tend to fall into that camp because if a young, energetic, Philly guy can't turn this program into a relevant one, I'm not sure who can.
5. Football talk: the Nittany Lions finished off their season with a nice bowl victory. With a strong recruiting class coming to Happy Valley next season, can James Franklin and company improve on their record in 2015, even in what should be a strong B1G East?
It's certainly early and I don't claim myself to be the football expert that some of BSD's other writers are, but I don't see any reason why they shouldn't be at least marginally better. The offensive line was the biggest issue last season and another offseason under the tutelage of O-line coach and Chopped contestant Herb Hand should give the offense a big boost. Bob Shoop was retained after some interest from LSU so the defense will be a major strength again. I guess it comes down to Christian Hackenberg's arm and OC John Donovan's playcalling, both of which can only get better as a pairing the second time around.
6. Prediction time: Who wins in Bloomington tonight, and by how much?
Penn State won in Assembly Hall in one of the crazier games I can remember from last season, but I don't foresee any such magic this year. PSU had the weekend off and I thought Indiana looked mighty impressive in the win against Ohio State. If Tom Crean can figure out how to minimize Newbill's impact like he did Russell's, I can't see any way Penn State finds the scoring to keep it within striking distance. I'll say Indiana by 12.
Thanks, Chad! Indiana and Penn State tip off from Assembly Hall tonight at 7pm on BTN.