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June 21, 2013

Analysis: Lions' lineup taking shape

The Penn State men's basketball team is going to have a new look for the 2013-14 season.

Starting with the graduations of Sasa Borovnjak and Nick Colella, the intended transfers of veterans Jermaine Marshall and Jon Graham, an influx of transfers in Allen Roberts, John Johnson (who is eligible to compete in games in late-December), and Jordan Dickerson (who won't play due to NCAA transfer rules), plus four incoming freshmen set to arrive this weekend in Graham Woodward, Payton Banks, Julian Moore and Geno Thorpe, only five players are returning with any experience from the 2012-13 season.

Got all that?

The question that remains, of course, is of the form that Patrick Chambers' lineup will take in his third season at the helm.

For the first time in his tenure, Chambers is going to have real options - though he doesn't appear to love going too deep into his bench, anyway.

Whether he lands on a seven or eight man rotation, here's a good guess as to how the lineup might look at the start of the season and, maybe more important, how it could evolve as the season progresses.

Obviously, fifth-year senior Tim Frazier will handle the point. Having missed all but four games last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon in his left ankle, Frazier's presence was desperately missed as transfer D.J. Newbill was forced to play out of position all year. Frazier's return to action late this summer when the team travels to Europe on an exhibition tour will be more than welcomed, and more or less sets the tone for the team.

Newbill, meanwhile, is coming off an outstanding debut season with the Nittany Lions, finishing as the fourth leading scorer in the conference for points scored (16.3 ppg) and picking up an honorable-mention selection on the All-Big Ten teams in the process. With more wins, that spot would have almost certainly been a first-team selection. Having Frazier back at the point, Newbill will spend most of his time at the two, though his experience at point last season provides Chambers at least a little flexibility for the position, depending on the circumstance.

Another mainstay from last season, junior wing Ross Travis, will likely start at the three, even though he struggled throughout the year until starting to find some rhythm in shots closer to the basket. Checking in at No. 4 in the conference for rebounds (7.4 rpg), Travis will be expected to find the form that emerged by the end of the season and led to a career-high 15 points in the Lions' upset against No. 4-ranked Michigan in February.

At the four, Brandon Taylor will look to build upon his true freshman season that started hot but gradually faded down the stretch as the long haul of a first college campaign set in. The good news for Penn State here is that, thanks in large part to Frazier's injury, Taylor found a role in the lineup that otherwise may not have existed to the extent it ended up being. He finished the season with 18 starts and action in all 31 contests. Undoubtedly, Penn State's coaching staff will have high hopes for Taylor's sophomore effort.

Though Marshall's presence likely would have moved Travis to the four and bumped Taylor to the bench, the bigger impact of Penn State's comings and goings this spring will be at the five.

Certainly, Chambers will have plenty of opportunity to go small as the season progresses, but Graham's departure is unlikely to force the small lineup. Instead, expect to see Donovan Jack (6-foot-9, 210 pounds) handle the role coming off a stress fracture in his right foot that forced him out midway through the year. Though hopes are high that Moore can step foot on campus and provide the type of ability more suited than Jack for the position, at this point, there's no clear indication that will happen beyond wishful thinking. If Moore can come through, Chambers will have the flexibility to move Jack to his more natural four.

Though Frazier, Newbill, Travis, Taylor and Jack appear to be the likely starters at the season's onset, Chambers will have some wiggle room to make changes if for some reason he doesn't find the success he's hoping for from that combination. Beyond Moore - who at the point is nearly guaranteed to see minutes this season, ready or not - Chambers can insert Roberts at the two or three as the team's sixth man at the start of the season. Add Johnson into the mix as another solid bench performer (he doesn't appear to be expected to jump into the starting lineup, at least not from the start of his game eligibility at the conclusion of the fall semester), and that's an eight-man rotation the Nittany Lions will realistically be utilizing by the start of Big Ten play.

One wildcard is worth considering, though.

The first is that Chambers is likely to go small at some point during the course of the season. He has plenty of options in a roster that will have only Jack and Moore standing taller than 6-foot-7. Though Frazier and Newbill are certain to be mainstays in the lineup with heavy minutes, Roberts, Johnson and even Thorpe present themselves as viable options to handle minutes at the two or three, depending on rotation.

Though this would appear to be the most likely set-up Chambers will be working with for the 2013-14 season, he clearly has more to play with as possibilities than at any other point during his career at Penn State.

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