D.J. Newbill did it all for Penn State.
The past two seasons, Newbill was the Nittany Lions' best player by a long shot. Last season, he averaged 20.7 points per game, accounting for nearly a third of his team's points night in and night out. He had three games scoring 30 points or more, including an epic performance in his final regular-season game, when he buried a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Minnesota. He had himself a real nice Big Ten Tournament, too, leading Penn State to wins over Nebraska and Iowa and nearly a win over Purdue, showing the conference how good he truly was on his way out the door.
On top of all that, he was the team's assist leader, too, with almost 30 more assists than the player with the next most. And, even at 6-foot-4, he ranked third on the team in rebounding.
Even with Newbill lighting up the scoreboard, though, Penn State was a team that struggled to get wins. With it's most productive player gone, what are the Nittany Lions going to do?
"You know, there's no D.J. Newbill or no Tim Frazier," head coach Patrick Chambers said last month during Big Ten media day. "We're really going to have to share the ball. We're really going to have to work inside out. And we have momentum. I mentioned that dynamic freshman class, and then we have one following it up. So our staff has worked really hard over the last four years. It's been a long process. But we've stuck to our guns and worked hard and diligently and did things the right way. We had two really good classes, one in and one coming in."
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The future does look good for Penn State, which has managed to make some recruiting noise of late. This season, Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins are a pair of top-150 recruits, per Rivals. The 2016 class is a terrific one, with a pair of four-star recruits in Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens, both ranked in the top 80 by Rivals. Watkins, Carr, Stevens and 2016 recruit Nazeer Bostick all hail from Philadelphia.
But what about the 2015-16 season?
Veterans Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner seem to be the logical picks to try and pick up where Newbill left off. Neither has shown the ability to produce at Newbill's level, an unfair expectation of anyone with Newbill being one of the conference's best players the past two seasons. But after they combined to average nearly 20 points a game last season, Chambers is confident they'll be able to do some positive things, along with other returners like Donovan Jack and Jordan Dickerson.
"I think Brandon Taylor is ready to take that torch. He's ready to step up," Chambers said. "He's worked really hard in the off season, changing his body, working on his versatility. Once he wants to get to the free-throw line much more. Shot very consistent down the stretch last year, making some 3s.
"I think Shep Garner, starting every game last year, will find some consistency in his sophomore year. Really shooting the ball extremely well. But I look forward to doing more with Jordan Dickerson and Donovon Jack. We're really big. 7-foot 1, 6-11, 6-10, 6-9, 6-8, the biggest team we've had here in a long time at Penn State, especially during my tenure. But we've really got to put the ball inside, put the ball in the paint and hope for positive results, either with dunks or lay-ups or at least getting to the free-throw line."
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Newbill was the heart and soul of the team last season, evident every time he put the Lions on his back. And he did that quite often. Production is one thing, but those intangibles are another. Perhaps equally as difficult as replacing all the numbers that come off the stat sheet with Newbill's departure is replacing the leadership he took with him.
"Everybody is concerned about who is that one guy who's going to be your leader. Well, sometimes that's not the best thing for your team. It's better to have four or five guys," Chambers said. "We do have a leadership council. So those guys are doing a great job of owning the locker room and teaching these guys how we do things at Penn State, how hard we have to play, your approach every single day, whether it's in the weight room, on the court or in the classroom. These guys are making sacrifices early and often, and they're teaching young guys about setting the table for a great routine. I think if you can get into a good routine early on, your academics will thrive. You know, you'll be great in the weight room, great on the court, and you'll like the outcome."
Penn State might be looking at another season near the Big Ten's basement, a place the Lions resided even when Newbill was putting up those massive scoring performances. But credit Chambers and his staff for making progress. Those recruiting classes are certainly worth getting excited about, and even if the wins don't come in large numbers this season, perhaps the fruits of those recruiting efforts will start to show up.