by Bill DiFilippo / @bflip33
The Big Ten is arguably the best basketball conference in the country. It had the most Sweet 16 teams last season with four, and it had more teams in the final USA Today poll of the season than any other conference with five.
With all the love the conference frequently gets, you think you’d be able to name its top returning scorer, right? Its top four scorers—DeShaun Thomas, Trey Burke, Brandon Paul and Cody Zeller—all went to the NBA. So…who’s the top returning scorer?
OK, so you probably read the subhead of this story and deduced it was DJ Newbill, a 6-4 guard for the Penn State Nittany Lions. Newbill averaged 16.3 points per game as a redshirt sophomore for the defending Big Ten Cellar Dwellers. But before you read that, did you know it was Newbill? Probably not. And that’s fine, just don’t forget the name.
Newbill’s path from three-star recruit to one of the top players in the one of best conferences in America has been unconventional to say the least. He was originally supposed to attend Marquette and play under coach Buzz Williams, who offered him a scholarship and received a verbal commitment from Newbill shortly thereafter. Then, well…
“After the school year was over, it was time for me start with the paperwork and getting into the school,” Newbill said, “then I got a phone call and Buzz was telling me…actually he called my high school coach and he told me that they were gonna take my scholarship and use it to go another route. They wanted me to go to prep school and recruit me all over again for the following year because they had given out too many scholarships.”
Newbill, who at the time was upset but now views the entire situation as a “blessing in disguise,” decided to take his talents to Southern Mississippi and play under coach Larry Eustachy with Dwayne Davis, a friend and teammate at Strawberry Mansion High School.
Newbill spent one year at USM, where he started all 32 games for the 22-10 Golden Eagles, was third on the team with 9.2 points per game and second on the team with 6.2 rebounds per game. Newbill was named to the Conference USA’s first-team All-Freshman squad. In that year, Newbill said his defense and decision making improved and credited that to his coaches, who, “did a good job of preparing me for what was about to happen, going to college. I had no clue.”
Most players, when on the verge of breaking out, come in the next season and dominate, especially in a mid-major conference like the CUSA.
Instead of doing that, Newbill transferred to Penn State.
“I was so far away from home, and I was a young kid coming out of the inner city,” Newbill said, “I’m going in the country, and my team that I was supposed to be running with, Dwayne Davis, he was in JuCo when we both committed, but he didn’t make the grades to be permitted into the school, so I was down there by myself.”
Enter Pat Chambers and his staff. Chambers had just been hired to be the new coach at Penn State in June of 2011 after the school’s former coach, Ed DeChellis, left to become the head coach at Navy. Chambers had Philly roots—he was an assistant under Jay Wright at Villanova—and decided to put them to work as he recruited Newbill.
“I knew of DJ when I was in Philly when I was a Villanova coach,” Chambers said, “and then I left and went to Boston (University). We heard whispers, but nothing concrete, that he might leave Southern Miss, so during that time we did our research just to be prepared if he did in fact leave, and we developed a pretty good relationship once he got his release.”
Of course, per NCAA rules, Newbill had to spend his academic sophomore year redshirting. In that year, Newbill sat out and worked. Teammate Ross Travis saw Newbill’s work ethic, seeing him working after hours in the gym and the weight room to better himself.
Associate head coach Keith Urgo, who calls Newbill his “favorite kid in the world,” saw Newbill transform physically, as well as a basketball player.
“He was just known as a scorer. First and foremost,” Urgo said, “his body completely changed. He came in a little bit more cubby, less in shape. Now he’s chiseled, every bit of 205, 209, something like that…his strength, his athleticism and his quickness have completely changed. That I think was the most important thing for him when he first arrived, but he was known just as a scorer who could only go right, so since he’s developed…a pull-up, a mid-range game, and he developed his left hand, his weak hand.”
Teammate Tim Frazier also noticed changes in Newbill’s game, something he credits to Newbill’s work in the gym.
“He was able to work on his game every day,” Frazier said. “He wasn’t able to travel, so when we traveled, besides watching our games, he was getting extra workouts in and just really trying to get ready for this season, and he grinded almost every day to become the player that he is today.”
Newbill watched on the sideline as the Nittany Lions went 12-20 (4-14 in conference). According to Newbill, sitting out let him, “see the Big Ten from the bench. I got to see how guys prepared for the games, it’s much different from Conference USA.”
Unfortunately for Newbill, his mother, who Chambers called Newbill’s “best friend,” passed away shortly before the season started, something that Newbill believes helped him grow.
“When my mother passed,” Newbill said, “I had a choice whether to dwell on the situation, let it bring me down, or I could rise above it and use it as fuel to my fire and keep on pushing. As a person, it helped my attitude and it helped me grow stronger and be more of an individual person. It helped me find myself more.”
Newbill’s first game as a Nittany Lion came on November 9, 2012 against Philadelphia University. Newbill, who, “had butterflies before the tip,” had 16 points and 7 boards against the Rams in his debut.
During the team’s fourth game of the season against Akron, Frazier went down with a torn Achilles’ tendon. Frazier was a first-team All-Big Ten selection the year before, averaging 18.8 points, 6.2 assists 4.7 rebounds and 2.4 steals per game. He was also averaging 16.3 points per game prior to his injury.
Of course, when your star goes down, the team needs to adjust. Newbill was already going to log some minutes as the team’s point guard, Chambers said about “six to eight minutes.”
Newbill ended up averaging the second most minutes per game in the conference at 36.5 mpg.
Both Frazier and Travis saw Newbill take on more of a leadership responsibility, both on and off the court.
“He became one of the sole leaders on the team until other guys stepped up,” Frazier said, “and I think he did a tremendous job taking that on and becoming the person that we needed him to be.”
Newbill accepted his new role as the team’s PG, even though he said the experience, “wasn’t as easy as I thought it was gonna be.” By season’s end, Newbill either led or co-led the Nittany Lions in assists in every game and averaged 4.0 APG, good for fifth in the Big Ten.
While Newbill certainly had some growing pains, like his 8 point, 3 assist outing on 3-15 shooting at home against 5th-ranked Indiana, he did show flashes of a potential All-Big Ten guard. Newbill ended his season with 15 consecutive double-digit scoring outings, including 17 points at home in an upset of No. 4 Michigan and 18 points in a road victory over Northwestern, Penn State’s first conference road win in two years.
Newbill called his performance against Indiana his best game of the season. Chambers, however, disagrees.
“It would be Indiana,” Chambers said, “on the road at Indiana. It could have been a massacre, could have gotten ugly…it never really got out of control. But what he did in that game was prove to a lot of people that he’s a heck of a player and he’s tough. It was the hardest I’ve ever seen somebody play on the road no matter what arena it was. And we lost. But I felt like, That’s the player he’s going to be. They ended up beating us by 20, but Cody (Zeller) was exhausted after the game, (Victor) Oladipo was exhausted after that game because he played DJ man up the whole time and DJ went right back at him.”
The Nittany Lions ended up going 10-21 (2-16) on the season. Newbill averaged 16.3 points, 5 rebounds and 4 assists per game, and teammate Jermaine Marshall were named honorable mention All-Big Ten by the coaches and the media. Newbill, along with teammate Nick Colella, also won the Spiritus Leoninus award, an award given out for “outstanding performance in athletics, academics, leadership and community service.”
But there is optimism next season. The conference is going to be slightly down next year. Frazier is back and healthy. Travis is the Big Ten’s second best returning rebounder. The team is bringing in a top-60 recruiting class. Chambers said he doesn’t want to put the pressure of calling this team an NCAA Tournament team, but he anticipates they will be competitive.
In the end, it comes down to Newbill. He has been in the gym, working on extending his jumper out to 20 feet and developing his left hand farther. He epitomizes “Philly Swagger,” something Chambers made up to describe tough players from Philly who are used to grinding and working hard for everything on the court. He and Frazier, who Chambers called the best backcourt in the country prior to last season, should form one of America’s most potent 1-2 punches. For Penn State basketball to be a nationally recognized team next year, it will be an uphill battle.
Luckily, Newbill has not only fought uphill battles his entire career, he’s overcome them.