During his tenure as an assistant coach at Villanova, Penn State coach Patrick Chambers witnessed guard play from future NBA scorers like Randy Foye and Kyle Lowry, among others.
While the Wildcats are known for swift and decisive play in the backcourt, Chambers saw Dante Cunningham, a lanky and versatile 6-foot-8 forward, develop during the 2008-09 season — Chambers’ last season before taking the head coaching job at Boston University.
Cunningham, who now plays significant minutes for the Minnesota Timberwolves, scored 16.1 points per game and earned Big East Most Improved Player honors in 2008-09 after boosting his scoring numbers by nearly six points from the season before.
While Penn State doesn't have big men like Cunningham who can take over a game right now, Chambers said the teams’ styles are different.
“What I’ll say is that we had 6-foot-7, 6-foot-8 [centers] at Villanova. The comparison [between Villanova and Penn State] really is not a great one and we run a totally different offense here,” Chambers said.
“At Villanova we had Dante Cunningham, who’s a pro, and Will Sheridan at 6-foot-8 who gave everything he had and could shoot really consistently from the outside.”
But, just as Cunningham made improvements, so are the members of the Nittany Lions’ frontcourt.
While the Lions have the second best backcourt duo in the conference scoring-wise, the frontcourt is on a short list of teams in the Big Ten without an assertive force in the paint.
Regardless, Chambers feels the Lions are close to having consistent production on the block as long as the forwards are being put in position to succeed.
“We just have to keep developing them, getting them better and make sure we’re finding their sweet spots,” Chambers said.
Offensively, Serbia native Sasa Borovnjak probably gives the Lions the best chance to take on opposing big men.
Borovnjak, a senior averaging 5.7 points per game, has shown the capability to grind down low in the Big Ten, scoring nine points against Ohio State on Saturday and eight against Nebraska on Jan. 19.
Chambers said the redshirt junior has made a sweeping hook shot a point of emphasis in practice in order to get around longer defenders down low.
“I have just been working on my shots, left and right from both blocks. I’ve been working on my go-to move, trying to get better everyday and so when games come around it’s something I’m used to,” Borovnjak said.
While efficient frontcourt scoring is a work in progress, defense in the paint has been quietly effective.
Not only did the Lions hold Indiana’s seven-foot forward Cody Zeller to two points on Jan. 23, but Brandon Taylor in particular has emerged as a viable back-down defender for Penn State.
Despite giving off the impression of a tall 3-point shooter through the non-conference slate, Taylor has used his nimble footwork and 6-foot-7 frame to help stop Big Ten teams from attacking the rim.
“Brandon Taylor — from the non-conference until now — is so much better defensively. It’s not even funny, and he’s rebounding the ball better,” Chambers said. “His feet are better, he’s getting to spots more quickly and he’s starting to understand rotations [on defense].”
In terms of the Lions’ other forwards, Jon Graham and Patrick Ackerman have seen a moderate amount of playing time in conference play, combining for 15 minutes per game on the floor in the last five games.
Despite not scoring on Saturday, Graham converted two buckets against Indiana. In Ackerman’s case, Chambers said the 6-foot-11 forward’s touch with the basketball has earned him his limited minutes.
But as a unit, Chambers pointed out that the frontcourt has played too uptight for his liking and playing poised is a part of the development.
“Look, they got to slow down. We all have to slow down a little bit out there,” Chambers said. “You can see we’re all sped up. I don’t know if it’s nerves or that they want to win so badly or stress, but [the bigs] need to play with a clear head and confidence.”