Experienced Lions expecting more in 2002-03
Penn State wrote off last season as a learning experience and a rebuilding year in what would turn out to be a 7-21 (3-13 Big Ten) season.
The Nittany Lions had lost four of their five starters and nearly 80 percent of their scoring from the 2000-01 team that had gone to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
The lack-of-experience excuse isn't going to work this season. Though there are only two seniors on the team, forward Tyler Smith was the only starter and one of three players to graduate. Of the eight returners, only one did not average at least nine minutes per game.
Those that return have experienced the trials of the Big Ten and have seen what happens when they make mistakes. They have had all offseason to think about those things and how to get back to where they were two years ago.
"I certainly feel that you do learn an awful lot about yourself when you don't have the success," Penn State coach Jerry Dunn said. "This is a chance and an opportunity to get back to where we want to be. I think that is what has fueled the fire for our players during the course of the summer, also in the spring after last season and in our preseason."
The Lions increased their emphasis on offseason weight training. Sophomore forward Jan Jagla, who led the team in rebounding with 5.8 a game, took it to heart. The 7-foot German native put on 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason. He currently weighs 231 pounds.
"As soon as the season was over, I just started lifting with the team and it really helped me a lot," Jagla said. "Also, my diet changed a lot. I'm just eating as much as I can every time I go out and eat; maybe eating four or five times a day."
The frontcourt has already taken a major hit, however, with the loss of Daren Tielsch. Tielsch, who averaged four points and 3.4 rebounds last season, left the team and withdrew from school to help his ill father, who recently suffered a heart attack. Junior Ndu Egekeze is the leading candidate to fill the other spot in the starting frontcourt.
The Lions' backcourt returns intact. Senior point guard Brandon Watkins, who averaged 13.3 points and 4.1 assists last year, started stepping into his role as captain last season and seem to have embraced it thus far.
"My teammates know that I've been through a lot and they look up to me a lot as far as how to do drills," Watkins said. "Whatever the case may be, I just know I have to lead by example, and I can't jump down guys' throats all of the time."
Junior shooting guard Sharif Chambliss was last season's most pleasant surprise for the Lions. He proved to be one of the most deadly 3-point shooters in the Big Ten. He finished fifth in the conference with a .421 shooting percentage and first with an average of 3.54 three-pointers a game. He also led the conference in free throw percentage, and finished 10th in scoring with a 14.6-point average.
The Lions will have the potential to have an effective three-guard lineup if junior swingman Jamaal Tate plays with the energy he showed as a substitute in 2001. Tate looked out of sync for most of last season after a preseason injury and averaged just 6.5 points in 25.8 minutes a game.
The Lions lost their opener, 85-55, to North Carolina in the Preseason NIT. Their next game is 7:30 p.m. Saturday against Pennsylvania at the Palestra in Philadelphia.