STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State coach Patrick Chambers figures the best way to keep his two best players sharp for the rigors of the Big Ten is to have them going up against each other at practice.
Senior Tim Frazier, try to go easy on newcomer D.J. Newbill.
How the Nittany Lions' new, potentially explosive backcourt, navigates the treacherous Big Ten could go a long way toward determining whether Chambers' rebuilding project can take another step forward in his second year in Happy Valley.
Chambers said he's always tempted to put Frazier and Newbill together at guard in practice. But he also said the best way to keep them sharp is have them practice against each other, like two brothers going at it in a pickup game in front of the garage.
"They know they can't go easy on each other," Chambers said. "Those guys have got to know how (other league guards) are going to compete against you for 40 minutes. You need to do it to each other, so that it's much easier in a game."
Frazier emerged last year as one of the top players in the Big Ten after leading the league in assists (6.2 per game) and finishing second in scoring (18.8 points) and steals (2.4). Frazier led a team that had lost four senior starters from the previous year, including school career-leading scorer Talor Battle.
Throw in a coaching change, when Chambers took over for Ed DeChellis, who resigned in the offseason to coach at Navy, and 2011-12 turned into a major transition season. The Nittany Lions finished 12-20 (4-14 Big Ten).
But a year of growth for the young roster, along with the addition of Newbill, has Chambers excited. So much so that Newbill has joined Frazier as faces on a banner for the Penn State basketball tailgate at football games — before the redshirt sophomore has ever played a game in Happy Valley.
Newbill, a Philadelphia native, is returning to his home state after averaging 9.2 points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman at Southern Mississippi in 2010-11.
The ever-optimistic Chambers likes to match up Frazier and Newbill against each other in practice so they know what it's like to compete against top Big Ten guards like Michigan's Trey Burke and Ohio State's Aaron Craft.
Chambers, in fact, isn't backing down from his prediction that Frazier and Newbill could be one of the best backcourts in the country.
"I'm standing by that. Two feet in with that one," Chambers joked.
Frazier has been working on his 3-point shot. He's already lethal driving into the lane. Chambers likens him to former St. John's guard and Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson.
Newbill is described as a 6-foot-4 guard with a rugged mentality who runs the floor with a "chip on his shoulder," Chambers said.
Frazier is also trying to mentor Newbill as a leader, the way Battle took Frazier under his wing when Frazier was a sophomore.
Junior guard Jermaine Marshall (10.8 points) should also benefit, giving Chambers three scoring options at guard. Throw in 6-foot-6 forward Ross Travis, a hard-nosed sophomore working on improving his perimeter shot, and Chambers may go with his preferred offense of four guys on the perimeter, with 6-foot-8 redshirt sophomore Jon Graham assigned to man the middle.
Graham and 6-foot-9 junior Sasa Borovnjak combined to average about 8 points and 6.8 rebounds together as the Penn State big men. Chambers would love to see at least a slight increase in those numbers after a year of playing in his system and getting used to the physical Big Ten.
Still, breaking .500 in the Big Ten schedule will be tough, especially given the top-heavy trio of preseason No. 1 Indiana, No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan. Michigan State (14) and Wisconsin (23) are also in the AP poll.
But the optimism Chambers infused in his rookie campaign has carried over to this fall among his players. An NIT bid may be realistic if things break the right way this season and Penn State can win at least one or two Big Ten games on the road after going winless last season away from the Jordan Center.
"Everybody knows the system, we know what coach wants," Frazier said. "Now we're right where he's at. We're a lot farther than we were last year."
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