Penn State basketball has their sights on the NCAA Tournament.
Usually that's only a phrase heard well before the season starts in central Pennsylvania, but this year it is a reality 21 games into the season. The Lions are 16-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten, which is good enough to put them in a tie for fourth place in the conference.
As Penn State takes this week off and prepares for the second half of their Big Ten schedule, there are five critical questions that will determine the success of this team for the remainder of the season.
1. Can Penn State play on a consistent level?
Penn State has looked brilliant in wins over Michigan, Purdue, and Georgia Tech, but have looked awful in losses to Minnesota and Temple. Penn State was completely outmatched in the first half against Michigan State, but then came back and dominated the Spartans in the second half.
Penn State has shown they are capable of playing with the big boys. But it could very well be the ability of Penn State to win the games they are expected to that determines if they will make the NCAA Tournament.
2. Will their inability to make free throws hurt them?
Penn State is horrendous from the charity stripe. Their two leading scores, Talor Battle and Jamelle Cornley, are particularly bad. Both have worked hard to improve their foul shooting, but both continually struggle, especially when the game is on the line.
The Nittany Lions have no real great foul shooter to rely on down the stretch of a game. Even shooting guard Stanley Pringle has missed several key free throws in big situations.
Penn State has survived disastrous free throw performances down the stretch in games against Georgia Tech, Indiana, and Purdue, but will they be so lucky the next time?
3. Can someone besides Cornley or Battle step up when this team is in trouble?
Besides having the most skill on the team, Cornley and Battle also have far and away the most heart and determination of any of the Nittany Lions. Both, however, are streaky shooters that rely a lot on their jump shot.
Battle does have a great ability to drive the lane and Cornley does have solid moves on the block, but if both of these players are struggling then Penn State is in big trouble.
Pringle has put up some big numbers this year, most of which has come on the road. Pringle is the best driver on the team, but misses layups and pull-up jump shots too frequently to present a threat on his own. His touch from the three-point line has been a tremendous asset to the Lions this season, but he doesn't seem to have the same ability that Cornley and Battle do to take over a game.
Sophomore big man Drew Jones has shown some potential, particularly at rebounding. Jones has a serious problem with foul trouble however.
Luckily for PSU, Jones now has a very competent back-up in Villanova transfer Andrew Ott. Ott has posted some impressive numbers in minimal playing time this season and shows tremendous intelligence around the basket.
Graduate student and team leader Danny Morrissey also has the ability to play big when needed. Morissey is one of the best three-point shooters to ever come through Penn State, but has mysteriously struggled with his shooting touch this season. If Morrissey can get it together, he should be able to find a lot of looks with all of the other offensive threats on the floor.
4. Can Penn State get any meaningul minutes out of the power forward position?
With Battle and Pringle at guard, and Cornley and Jones or Ott down low, Penn State has a fairly formidable lineup offensively and defensively. What they lack is any sort of production from the "4" position on the court.
The starter has been sophomore Jeff Brooks. Brooks is tall, lanky, and athletic. On rare occasions he has displayed some good shooting touch and he is very good at penetrating a defense when he chooses to. Brooks however seems to have a very poor knack to the game, and is usually a non-factor in most aspects of the game.
Sophomore David Jackson was expected to have this role entering the season. Last season Jackson was one of Penn State's best shooters and a tremendous role player, particularly on the defensive end. Jackson has continued to play very good defense this season, but has usually been a significant liability on the offensive end.
For a few games in a row, Jackson literally turned the ball over every time he touched it. He has also inexplicably lost all ability to make a shot. In the past few games, Jackson has shown some signs of his former self, which would be great news for the Nittany Lions.
Freshman Chris Babb is really more of a guard, but has the height to play the forward position. Babb appears extremely athletic and a gifted basketball player, but has limited his role in games to a three point shooter. He is a terrific shooter, but seems to have the ability to do much more for the team.
Sources say he is slow to learn the system. If Babb can become more comfortable at this level, he could have an immediate impact.
5. Can Penn State defend the three-point shot?
Ever since the Ed Dechellis era, Penn State has been lit up behind the three-point arc. Team's sharpshooters almost always put up enormous numbers against the Nittany Lions.
This season Penn State has improved slightly, but games against Minnesota and Iowa in particular have exposed their weakness. Minnesota was 9-9 from three-point range in their 20-point victory over PSU.
Penn State plays both zone and man defensively in games. Their zone is often too compact towards the basket because of their lack of size on the interior. They play neither with their hands up, and have poor communication on screens.
If Penn State can find away to clamp down on opposing team's shooters, while remaining the rest of their defensive intensity, they could cause teams a lot of frustration in the half-court game.