When do-it-all guard Tim Frazier went down with an injury against Akron on Nov. 18, the Nittany Lions knew they were losing a consistent scorer and distributor — the only Division I player last year to average more than 17 points and six assists per game.
While the Zips figured Penn State could find scoring from other outlets, one instantly irreplaceable element they recognized was a dependable ball-handler.
Lions coach Patrick Chambers was forced to play D.J. Newbill, a slashing 6-foot-4 shooting guard, at the point, which resulted in full-court press by the Zips and disarray in the Lions’ backcourt.
Since Frazier ruptured his left Achilles tendon, which ended his season, pressing the Lions’ guards and wearing them down has become an apparent plan for opposing coaches.
And it doesn’t look like a trend that will fade away any time soon.
“I did think our pressure defensively [was effective],” said Army coach Zach Spiker, whose team pressed quite a bit in the Black Knights’ 78-70 defeat on Saturday. “…I know they have had some adversity at the point guard position, and we were hoping to take advantage of that.”
With Frazier done for the season, Newbill and shoot-first guard Jermaine Marshall have been tasked with running point guard, and growing pains have followed since then. Chambers has said time and time again that the point guard position isn’t something either guy “signed up for”.
Regardless, the duo has received help breaking the press from the player who did sign up to play point, even if he is on crutches.
“[Frazier has helped with] just little things like simple back dribbles, in-and-out crossovers, using screens and things like that,” Marshall said. “He’s been helping us big time especially during halftime adjustments.”
Not only is Frazier helping from the sidelines, but the Lions’ big men are making the press break a collective effort, contributing ball screens and picks for Newbill and Marshall.
Instead of relying solely on the ball handling of the guards, Chambers has made use of the sizeable frames of 6-foot-9 forwards Sasa Borovnjak and Jon Graham to help free up the backcourt from pesky defenders.
“Getting pressed full-court at this level is pretty tough, having that press release is big and coach [Chambers] has been stressing that to the bigs so it’s going to be something we’ll continue to do,” Marshall said.
In terms of preparation, the Lions understand that depth issues at guard will prompt opposing coaches to go to the press more often that not. With that being said, the team has made smart transition basketball a focus in practice.
For example, the Lions have implemented a drill called “V-cut”, which emphasizes passing, coming back to the ball and shifting their eyes up the floor.
“That has helped us against the press because while most teams are pressing the backcourt we look up and may have a two-on-one or a three-on-two, so we need to get out in transition,” Newbill said.
And despite turning the ball over 10 times in the first half against Army, the Lions were able to capitalize on three fastbreak buckets — something Penn State hopes to continue to do when breaking the press.
“If teams are going to pressure you, you got to make them pay for it,” Newbill said. “…You’ve got to get out in transition and make some easy buckets on them.”