STATE COLLEGE, Penn. — For the first time in quite some time, Penn State has more than just a pulse; it’s an able-bodied citizen in the college basketball community.
The Nittany Lions are 10-1 heading into Saturday’s game against Drexel.
Their outstanding record wouldn’t be that way without one man lifting the Lions into college hoops relevancy.
Crafty, veteran guard D.J. Newbill has given a success-starved fan base hope. And he’s doing that on a nightly basis after wrestling with years of adversity.
Newbill has been lights out this year. Currently, the 6-foot-4 slashing ball-handler is averaging 21.9 points per game, good for ninth nationally. Earlier in the season, Newbill ranked as high as third.
That, for the most part, is unheard of for a Penn State basketball player. But is Newbill checking the national scoring ranks?
“Nah,” Newbill said. “I’m more focused on getting wins.”
And with him playing a Big Ten-leading 38.3 minutes per game, it’s an understatement to say he’s a major factor in those wins.
It’s not even just the scoring; Newbill also is averaging 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game.
“He’s got to continue doing it all,” head coach Patrick Chambers said. “That’s what this team needs from him.”
This isn’t the first successful season for Newbill, but the journey to get here hasn’t been the easiest.
Coming out of high school, he was supposed to play at Marquette; that is, until then-coach Buzz Williams pulled his scholarship in the 11th hour, forcing Newbill to look for other options.
He went to play for a different set of Golden Eagles at Southern Mississippi, where he earned Conference USA All-Freshman honors.
But Newbill wanted to play closer to home, which is why he transferred to Penn State. After sitting out a year per NCAA rules, he was eager to start the 2012-13 season.
Then, on Sept. 15, 2012, Newbill’s mother, Tawanda Roach, passed away after a short battle with cancer.
Newbill fought throughout the year — a campaign that saw fellow star guard Tim Frazier suffer a season-ending injury in the opening weeks.
In Frazier’s absence, the hard-nosed guard was forced to make a leap, both on the court and in his personal life. And he did.
|DI LEADING SCORERS (AS OF DEC. 17, 2014)|
|Zeek Woodley||Northwestern St.||190||23.8|
|Jelani Hewitt||Georgia South.||162||23.1|
|Marcus Marshall||Missouri St.||183||22.9|
|Andrew Rowsey||UNC Asheville||226||22.6|
|R.J. Hunter||Georgia St.||199||22.1|
|D.J. Newbill||Penn State||241||21.9|
|Evan Payne||Loyola Marymount||195||21.7|
|Newbill ranks 2nd nationally in points scored.|
Newbill led the Lions in scoring and was a leader for his team. The ups and downs of that season have primed him for the present and what’s ahead.
“I’m older, wiser and better,” Newbill said.
Newbill’s prolific scoring is being met with added defensive pressure. But compared to his past, the increased attention on him, filled with high traps and double-teams, seems like nothing.
Chambers said Newbill is handling the success “like a mature man.”
“You can see, he’s getting a little frustrated,” Chambers said. “But he’s holding it together.”
It’s not just Chambers who sees what Newbill has accomplished in spite of a mounting offensive burden.
Junior forward Brandon Taylor is one of Newbill’s roommates and closest friends. Taylor worked out in the offseason with Newbill and said he isn’t surprised at all by his teammate’s surge of productivity.
“He’s pretty much unguardable,” Taylor said. “Even if he starts with two points in the first half, he’ll finish with 25. He’s playing at an unbelievable level.”
Newbill said it feels good to know that the hard work put in with Taylor and others over the past few months has paid off.
But the seasoned Newbill knows there’s still plenty of games left on this year’s slate. The Lions have the entire Big Ten conference schedule ahead of them, along with two more nonconference contests.
Newbill’s rise into the upper echelon of players nationally has undoubtedly been an extraordinary way to start the season.
But for the Lions to keep winning, and raising the profile of Penn State basketball, Newbill must carry on with what he’s been doing non-stop in recent years: persevering.