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February 12, 2013

Column: Beside the point

Penn State men's basketball head coach Patrick Chambers is putting up $10 of his own money to donate to THON for every student that attends the Nittany Lions' Thursday night matchup against Iowa at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Not that his generosity, school spirit, and overall 'great guy' aura weren't already apparent, but the move only furthers the connection between the students and a program in desperate need of support right now.

Winless in the Big Ten, Thursday's 9 p.m. tip against Iowa could represent one of the best remaining opportunities on Penn State's schedule to avoid an unprecedented 0-for in-conference season.

For a group of student-athletes and their coaches that have worked tirelessly, remained positive and continued to fight in spite of an impossible personnel setback early in the season - the loss of senior point guard Tim Frazier - Chambers appears willing to do just about anything to gain any advantages, large or small, against the Hawkeyes.

The problem, of course, is that as it relates to his team, the Nittany Lions are already at a major disadvantage against every single Big Ten opponent they face, and will continue to be for the remainder of the season.

Simply put, when Ed DeChellis departed Penn State in late May of 2011, Chambers was left with A) an impossibly truncated recruiting season and B) a roster largely devoid of legitimate basketball talent, save for Frazier.

By the time Billy Oliver was forced to end his career due to medical complications, and Matt Glover, Peter Alexis and Trey Lewis all transferred to better fits for their talent levels, the Nittany Lions found themselves entering this season with two very capable backcourt teammates in Frazier and D.J. Newbill, a crew of hard-working, often-outmatched teammates, and three true freshmen needing time to develop, more than anything else.

How much better the Nittany Lions would have fared in the wins column this season with a healthy Frazier is unknown, but certainly, some conclusions can be supposed about their ability to perform on the group with a dynamic point guard running the show.

Flatly, they would have been considerably better.

For as hard as replacing Frazier's 18.8 points and 6.2 assists per game has been, the real challenge to Chambers and his coaching staff has been trying to adjust the game of his second-best player, shooting guard Newbill, to that of a point guard. To Newbill's credit, the scrappy kid from Philadelphia with a fighter's mentality accepted the new role without hesitation, willing to sacrifice the breakout season he'd envisioned for the good of the team.

And, as a result of the shift, wing-man Jermaine Marshall was forced to the two, Ross Travis to the three, and true freshman Brandon Taylor was thrust into an unexpected starting role at the four. A makeshift lineup, already thin on ready-to-play Division I talent before Frazier's injury, would need to navigate the majority of its nonconference schedule and the entirety of it's Big Ten slate while largely playing out of position.

It has not gone well.

Though Newbill has performed above and beyond what anyone could have expected from a converted two-guard with limited ball handling skills and no discernible help beyond Marshall, the results have been similar to what would happen if Bill O'Brien's offense needed to use Bill Belton at quarterback and had no other personnel options.

In that hypothetical situation, yes, the offense could continue to function, just as Chambers' has, but not anywhere close to the level it's designed to perform.

Only Newbill and Marshall have had anything resembling productive seasons, pouring in 15.8 and 14.9 points per game in the Big Ten, respectively. Others, like Travis, Taylor, former walk-on guard Nick Colella and big men Sasa Borovnjak and Jon Graham, have all struggled, averaging no more than 6.3 points per game.

Against conference opponents, the team is shooting just 35.3 percent from the floor and a paltry 23.6 percent from beyond the arc, both the worst numbers in the Big Ten. Though the team's defensive and rebounding numbers have been far from outstanding, simply finding ways to score points has been the biggest challenge this year, averaging just 54.8 per game, or, 5.6 points less than last year's average.

While no one would question Newbill's toughness and leadership in the face of adversity, the consequences of a devastating injury to the team's star point guard and facilitator, with no obviously equipped backup to fill in, have exhibited themselves consistently. Along with a plague of lost confidence sans Frazier, on a very basic level, the Nittany Lions now must take shots, though craftily gained and often open, that are not as open as they'd been with their senior facilitator on the floor.

To Chambers' credit, his devotion to Newbill eliminates any possible excuses for the team's winless run through the Big Ten. Protecting the spirit and effort of one of his most dedicated, young and enthusiastic players has taken precedence over offering a realistic explanation of the team's shortcomings this season.

"I think he's doing a really good job. The only area you could say is if he had more assists," Chambers said recently of Newbill's performance as a point guard. "If he had a ten assist game, maybe that would really start to differentiate him as a true point guard. But, he needs to score, and he has a scorer's mentality. As a combo-guard, that's the way he's built. But, again, I think he's doing a really good job, under the circumstances.

"I'd love to be nit-picky, but I just can't do that because he's done everything I've asked him to do… I ask a lot of him."

Still, trying to fit a game best suited without the ball into the primary ball handler's role has left Newbill and Marshall struggling for answers while taking on point guard responsibilities together.

Unfortunately for Newbill and his Penn State teammates, the answers have yet to arrive and, until Frazier returns to the point next year, may not this season.

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