For the majority of the season, Penn State has relied on the backcourt duo of D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall for a healthy chunk of the team’s scoring, assists and even rebounds.
With the recent emergence of forward Sasa Borovnjak and his 16 points per game average over the last three contests, the Nittany Lions have picked up a much-needed third scorer.
However, if those players were to have an off shooting night — like Newbill’s 4-of-14 performance from the field on Thursday against Illinois — help from bench players could alleviate some of that pressure to score.
The Lions’ five starters shouldered the load time-wise with an average of 33.8 minutes against the Illini. But the team’s bench gave the Lions zero points in a combined 31 minutes last game — an example of less-than-reliable play coming from the bench of late.
“We just got a third scorer. Let's not get greedy,” coach Patrick Chambers said with a laugh. “I'm teasing. We have to be consistent. The starting five have to do a great job when they're out there, and the guys who come off the bench have to elevate us and create opportunities…They have to be ready to make plays because they're going to have opportunities.”
Despite recent struggles, individuals have shown spurts of productivity spattered at different parts of the schedule.
In a two-point loss to Iowa on Feb. 14, guard Kevin Montminy chipped in a couple of key buckets, and on Feb. 9, walk-on forward Alan Wisniewski virtually came out of nowhere to provide six points and eight rebounds in 17 minutes off the bench.
However, some overlooked details of the game, like playing defense with an abundance of fouls to give, is something that players like forward Jon Graham have embraced in limited playing time.
“The mindset for the bench is just coming in and making a positive impact. Sometimes it's not going to be scoring,” Graham said. “There will be other ways like with defensive assignments, being in position to get rebounds, stuff like that. Little things like that can make a big difference.”
Chambers has preached to his bench players that it isn’t always about making headlines, standing out in the box score or scoring profusely off the bench.
Players like Wisniewski and Montminy said the head coach preaches a high-energy approach coming off the bench, but at the same time doesn’t discourage them from taking clear looks at the basket.
“Coach Chambers always says that he wants the bench to elevate us. Our job is to come in with a lot of energy and give the starters some rest, but bring that energy level up and not lose anything,” Montminy said.
“It's definitely different from starting… But if I have that open shot or that open drive, coach [Chambers] has confidence in to make it and that helps.”
Considering these bench players don’t have 30 or so minutes to get in a groove, it could be difficult to instantaneously make an impact coming cold off the bench.
Wisniewksi said it’s hard when “you've been sitting there for 30 minutes.”
And while it’s tough coming off the bench and getting in a rhythm, the Lions have benefited from their time observing the ebb and flow of games and being better prepared for when they enter.
“You can see how the game is progressing and you can see certain tendencies and what people are doing,” Montminy said. “I mean, we've already scouted them at that point, but just to see them in-person gets your mind a little bit focused more and be ready for whenever your number is called.”