INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 12: Derrick Nix #25 of the Michigan State Spartans drives in the first half against Billy Oliver #35 of the Penn State Nittany Lions during the semifinals of the 2011 Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse on March 12, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
The Nittany Lions will look to freshman Ross Travis, among others, to carry the burden Billy Oliver's decision to end his playing career will place on the offense.
Billy Oliver walked out onto the Bryce Jordan Center floor Monday afternoon dressed for practice in his standard issue blue pinafore, shorts and basketball sneakers, ready to mix things up with his teammates as he's done countless times over the past four years.
Unfortunately for both Oliver and the Nittany Lions, however, practice is about as close to the action as he's going to get after his announcement following Penn State's win against Nebraska on Saturday that he's ending his basketball career in response to recurring concussion-like symptoms.
Now, coach Patrick Chambers and his remaining players have to figure out how to replace the 6-foot-8 redshirt junior from Chatham, N.J. in their offense as they hit the home stretch of their 2011-2012 season. And though Oliver's 6.8 points per game didn't make up a huge part of the team's offensive production, most agree his absence will be noticeable.
Oliver captured the attention of opponents across the Big Ten after a 21-point, 7-of-11 shooting effort from three-point territory in Penn State's 65-45 win against Purdue on Jan. 5. Ever since, his name has come after only Tim Frazier, the team's leading scorer, when conference coaches talk about how to slow down the Lions' offense.
"People used to just ... we call it 'x-ing' ... just take Billy out of the game," Chambers said at his weekly press conference before practice. "They would play ball screens differently, so there's more space out there for Tim, and for Cam [Woodyard] and for Jermaine [Marshall], but now that space shrinks a little bit."
Never was that more clear than Penn State's games against Illinois and Ohio State last month when Frazier was held to an average of 14.0 points per game, below his average of 18.5, while Oliver sat on the bench with his concussion symptoms.
Offenses were able to key more on the Lions' primary and secondary threats, contributing to the team mustering just 52 points per game in the four games Oliver missed between Jan. 19 and Jan. 31, down from the season average of 61.8, for just a No. 298 ranking nationally.
Freshman Ross Travis got the start at Oliver's old spot at power forward against the Cornhuskers and played 18 minutes. He was able to rack up four points on 2-of-2 shooting from the field. Frazier pointed to Travis quickly when asked who can step into the void left by Oliver.
"Ross Travis, he's going to have to step in," Frazier said before practice, also mentioning more regular rotation players like Sasa Borovnjak and Jonathan Graham. "They don't even have to do what Billy Oliver does, just play their games and play more minutes and be able to compete more."
Travis is averaging four points and four rebounds per game and has played in all 26 of the Lions' games this season. The 6-foot-8 Chaska, Minn. native's signature performance came in Penn State's 61-57 loss against Lafayette on Dec. 7 when he score 12 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field and grabbed eight rebounds.
He also scored 10 points and grabbed eight boards against No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 19, showing he can compete on the same level as some of the nation's elite teams.
And so, if Travis and the other forwards are able to step up over the next couple of weeks, Frazier is hopeful the Lions will be able to move forward without Oliver, as much as they'll miss what he brought to the court.
"I think that our team, I think that we're going to step up," Frazier said. "We've got a lot of older guys that are going to step up and these young guys are going to step up and we're going to take it and play for Billy Oliver."
NOTES: Chambers said it is still possible that freshman guard Trey Lewis will play again this season. He's been battling a high ankle sprain and a bad back this season ... Chambers thinks Michigan State's Draymond Green should be the favorite to win Big Ten Player of the Year.