On a team starring an All-Big Ten point guard in senior Tim Frazier and a highly-touted transfer shooting guard in redshirt sophomore D.J. Newbill, the backcourt of Penn State men’s basketball team is expected to carry the load offensively.
As the Nittany Lions begin their regular season, questions surround their big men, especially redshirt sophomore Jon Graham and redshirt junior Sasa Borovnjak and how they will compliment the explosive guards. The two forwards respectively averaged 3.9 and 4.3 points per game last season, with only limited time in the starting lineup. With the retirement of the 6-foot-8 Billy Oliver , last season’s fourth-leading scorer, at least one of these players will be expected to step up as a consistent starter.
“I feel like we’re going to see better production as opposed to last year,” Graham said. “Me and Sasa, we worked really hard in the offseason to get stronger and a couple other things.”
The Lions opened their season on Saturday with an exhibition match against Philadelphia University. Though Borovnjak got the start, Graham stepped up off the bench with 16 points and a team-leading seven rebounds in 19 minutes for the Lions.
Borovnjak put in seven points with three rebounds in 15 minutes.
Graham was active, creating space with his 6-foot-8 frame to pound Philadelphia inside, where Frazier found him several times.
“If they can get us a double-double every game I would be extremely happy,” coach Pat Chambers said. “I’d be pretty happy with more defensive rebounds. That means we’re getting more stops, that means our bigs are getting the ball, that means we’re running down the other way for better opportunities high percentage opportunities. [Graham] and Sasa need to come every day and play extremely hard.”
Both Graham and Borovnjak committed to fitness this offseason as they prepared to step in to larger roles. Graham dropped 15 pounds and improved his vertical by a few inches. After returning last year from an ACL injury, Borovnjak is now playing without his brace and has improved his agility.
“We’re here to help our team. We got better than last year — we had a great offseason and preseason,” Borovnjak said. “We definitely improved the most on our rebounding. Me and Jon got our verticals up from last year, I took my brace off and I’m moving better.”
The depth of the frontcourt has been improved by the versatility of sophomore Ross Travis. The 6-foot-6 Travis is a player that Chambers says can “play one through five.”
Travis made an immediate impact as a freshman, establishing as a scrappy player averaging the second most rebounds on the team with 4.2.
“That’s a kid that we’re not talking enough about, he’s one of our most valuable players next to Tim Frazier,” Chambers said. “For a guy that can play the three and the four especially the four as the freshman continue to develop, he is critical to a lot of things that we’re doing, especially early on here.”
Along with these returning players, the Lions have bolstered their frontcourt with the addition of freshmen. Six-foot-7 Brandon Taylor and 6-foot-9 Donovan Jack, earned minutes on Saturday, making an impact defensively. Taylor reeled in five rebounds and Jack posted a block. Though Chambers admits his young players have along way to go, he liked some of what he saw.
“Between [Taylor] and Donovan it’s going to be hit or miss, those guys need to step up and take their shots when they’re there,” Chambers said. “They got to defend, they got to rebound… We’re going to count on them and they need to understand that. Their approach needs to change. Everything’s got to be a little different but we need them to get in and get 15-18 minutes a game.”
As the Lions head into a season in which they will have to face some of the best big men in the Big Ten such Indiana’sCody Zeller and Wisconsin’s Jared Berggren. Even with these challenges on the horizon, there is confidence amongst the team about the talent of the Lions’ frontcourt.
“I’m expecting to do the same thing that we do, come out and play hard, play Penn State basketball for 40 minutes, hold their ground and be animals in the post,” Frazier said. “They have tremendous confidence. Now they’ve had a year under coach Chambers and they know exactly what he wants.”