With the rise of advanced statistics through the internet over the past decade, we've come to gain a new perspective on the actual quality of basketball teams. While wins and losses will forever dictate the hierarchy of competition, we do know a team's record doesn't always indicate their true ability. Sometimes a team's record could be inflated or undeserving with a weak SOS, while a worse record could hide a number of close losses to stronger opponents.
We've been exposed to this phenomenon under the last two Penn State coaches. Ed DeChellis' teams used to be notorious for overachieving despite shoddy efficiency margins. Former Big Ten Wonk founder John Gasaway coined the phrase "degree of DeChellis" until the disastrous 2010 Big Ten season disproved the notion that DeChellis was a late-game wizard. I don't think anyone took DeChellis for an X's & O's mastermind anyway like his record in close games suggested at one point.
Pat Chambers also proved he could overachieve in 2016, when Brandon Taylor's surprising senior year development led to an unexpected .500 season. But he's also underachieved after failing to make the NIT with DJ Newbill and Tim Frazier. A five-game losing streak also doomed this year's shot to get off the postseason schneid, as well.
But otherwise the season played out in line with reasonable expectations considering the team's inexperience. The Nittany Lions' freshman class matched the hype lobbied on them for their stellar high school careers in Philadelphia. Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins displayed legitimate potential to possibly gel into the best trio this program has ever had. But in their first seasons at the Big Ten level, there were plenty of downs that accompanied the ups.
To frame some context around Penn State's 2016-17 final numbers, we've consulted the impeccable KenPom database that dates back to the 2001-2002 season. In the table below, we compiled Penn State's Big Ten-only efficiencies and how they compare to the league's aggregate efficiency. As you can imagine, the numbers are a discouraging reminder of this program's futile history.
|Year||Record||Off. Eff.||Def. Eff.||B1G Avg.||Eff. Mar.||KenPom EXP.|
|Legend||Dunn||DeChellis||Chambers||> B1G Avg|
The 6-12 record and 13th place is obviously not where this team wanted to be, but the numbers indicate this was PSU's third-best Big Ten season in the last sixteen years when measuring for efficiency. They had to win one of the Purdue or Ohio State heartbreakers at home to match an expected record of 7-11, but falling one game short isn't devastating when a new floor has been established. This was the youngest Penn State team since DeChellis' early seasons (KenPom's experience rating doesn't go back that far), but they were far more competitive in the league than those pitiful teams. That can only bode well as they get older, even if the league is due to improve.
There isn't a Penn State team in KenPom's database who outscored their Big Ten opponents over one season. Only three units - offense or defense - in 16 seasons outperformed the Big Ten's average efficiency. One of those units was this year's defense despite their inexperience. That's a positive sign since multiple freshmen had to adjust to new demands on defense compared to their high school days.
The team's defensive improvement from the 2015-16 season stemmed from a newfound ability to force turnovers and block shots without fouling. That has been a consistent achilles' heel for Chambers' past teams, who often gave their opponents significant advantages from the charity stripe. There were definitely times when Penn State found themselves in foul trouble this year of course, but the frequency of such situations diminished.
The freshmen were primarily responsible for a 220-spot improvement in their opponent's free throw rate. Mike Watkins actually made it the whole season without fouling out (compared to Jordan Dickerson's five DQs in 2016). He became an effective rim protecter with a strong ability to wall-up against driving scorers. While he may not be as strong of a shot blocker as Minnesota's Reggie Lynch, his 9.6 percent block rate was second in the league.
Sophomore Josh Reaves' development also made a difference. It's still a mystery how he was left off the Big Ten's All-Defensive team after leading the league in steals at 2.1 per game. His natural instincts to anticipate passing lanes and cause deflections led to a good number of easy dunks in transition. However, his aggressiveness has burned him with foul trouble at inopportune times, as well.
Finding consistency will be the key for strong defensive play in 2018. You can just throw on the Purdue, Michigan St, and Minnesota home games to relive this team's true defensive potential, but those efforts have to be more common every night next year. They can get there, but further growth in weak spots would also help.
This was Pat Chambers' worst defensive rebounding team since he's been in State College, although Watkins posted a dominant 28.2 defensive rebounding percentage (second only to Caleb Swanigan). The Lions need more boards from their four position to finish defensive possessions. Perhaps the additions of Satchel Pierce and Trent Buttrick will help naturally, but more minutes from Watkins could go a long way on its own, too.
While Chambers has proven to be a formidable defensive coach, his offenses have generally left the opposite impression. For the fifth time in six seasons, Penn State failed to score 1.0 point-per-possession in the Big Ten. Too often Chambers' team lacked structure which led to wasted possessions via live-ball turnovers or poor looks.
What's become an overwhelming trademark of Chambers' teams has been their poor shooting percentages. This year was actually PSU's most productive three-point shooting team since 2011, but that says more about how bad the past has been. The Lions' rate of attempts decreased, so at least they didn't shoot as high of a volume, and the team's 33.9% season average is the best ever under Chambers. But that's still ranked just 224th in the country, while their Big Ten average was even worse at 32.8% (12th in the Big Ten).
Many fans have focused their criticism on the three-point shooting, but the Lions' ability to convert shots within the three-point line is an even bigger concern. For the season, Penn State ranked 307th in two-point percentage in the country (45.4%). At least this number improved over the course of the season (46.1% in the Big Ten), but they must shoot far better in 2018 if they want to reach the postseason.
We'll have deeper analysis on these shooting percentages in the coming days, but one positive development on offense was Penn State's assist numbers. With Tony Carr at the point, this team saw a dramatic increase in the team's assist percentage. The Nittany Lions only set up 44.0 percent of made field goals last year compared to 54.8 percent this season. You have to give a hat-tip to Mike Watkins for this improvement too, since they finally have a big man with the ability to catch and dunk.