During the preseason, Penn State's mantra of "One More" echoed through the program as the team looked to rebound from a disappointing 11-20 season in 2009-2010 that included nine losses by five points or less. Team members spoke openly about contributing just a little bit more individually to help push the team over the top at crunch time where it fell short all too often last year.
Fast forward to mid-December, though, and the Nittany Lions don't only need one more, two more or even three more to get over the hump. Try 15 more. That's the average number by which Penn State has fallen in its three losses to Mississippi, Maryland and Virginia Tech. Where the Lions were falling just short in their losses last season, they're getting blown out this season.
The obvious explanation for this would appear to be the level of competition. Ken Pomeroy rates all three of the aforementioned teams in his top 100, while six of the seven teams Penn State has beaten this year rank 100 or lower. Only Duquesne, at No. 69, ranks above 100 among Penn State's wins.
But digging deeper, it's clear that's not the only reason Penn State is struggling so much in its losses. Depth is simply killing Penn State.
The Lions get half of their offense from two players, Talor Battle and Jeff Brooks, who average a total of 33.4 of the team's 66 points per game. When the pair finishes above or around that average, Penn State is generally OK. However, when one player is off, as Brooks was against Maryland and Virginia Tech, then the Lions really struggle. Penn State lost those two games by a combined 33 points as Brooks sat out with foul trouble through big portions of those contests and contributed only six and two points, respectively.
Beyond Brooks at forward, there isn't a whole lot in the way of players who can pick up the slack. Sixth man Billy Oliver averages only 4.2 points per game despite seeing an average of 19 minutes. Take away his 10 points in the opener against Lehigh and nine points against Virginia Tech on Sunday, and he's averaging only 2.7. As the primary substitute for a key scorer like Brooks, that's hardly adequate. Even in place of David Jackson, who averages 9.3 per contest, at the three spot, it's a sizable drop-off.
And then, there's the curious case of Andrew Jones. The starting center sees just over 30 minutes per game, but is averaging only 5.9 points. Of course, Jones has never been much of a scorer, but even now, against the weakest portions of Penn State's schedule, he isn't offering nearly the post presence Penn State needs to succeed. He sees too many minutes not to contribute more offensively. That might not be so obvious now, but it will be in Big Ten play if that production trend continues.
At guard, the situation is even more dire. Talor Battle's 20.1 point per game average is higher than the combined average of the rest of Penn State's guards, 15.7. When Battle is not on the floor, there just aren't any players who can create shots for themselves. Tim Frazier and Taran Buie have their moments, but as underclassmen, they're still very inconsistent and can be invisible at times.
As Penn State enters the toughest portion of its schedule, the Lions needs to balance out the scoring. Seven of Penn State's 10 conference opponents are ranked or received votes in the latest AP poll, and 14 of Penn State's remaining 19 games will be played against those teams. If the Lions can't find a way to get some more people involved in the offense, those solid teams will collapse their defenses on Battle and Brooks and more blowouts like the ones Penn State has suffered could be in the future.
If that happens, you can forget the NIT, let alone the NCAA Tournament.