UNIVERSITY PARK - We may be in the heart of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, but Monday Penn State began taking its first steps toward an expected bounce-back season next winter. The strides in question came in a literal fashion.
All-Big Ten guard Tim Frazier, who ruptured his left Achilles' tendon in November and was lost for the rest of the season, jogged on a treadmill for the first time since the injury. He was on the machine for 12 minutes.
"It's a huge step," Frazier said Monday afternoon. "To be able to run on a treadmill ... basically being able to run on your own, it was a huge milestone that I've been looking forward to for a long, long time."
Nittany Lion coach Pat Chambers expects Frazier to be granted a medical redshirt for what would have been his senior campaign and be back at full strength for 2013-14.
"He ran for 15 minutes today, full body weight," Chambers said. "I expect him to continue on that path. We're going to start doing individual workouts next week and he will be in them."
Chambers added that Frazier will ease back into things initially, saying, "He's not in Tim Frazier shape, but he's slowly getting back to where he needs to be. It was a proud moment today. ... He was a little fired up, emotional. Which was great. ... It was just an amazing feeling for all of us."
There is good reason for the excitement over Frazier's expected return. As a junior in 2011-12, he accounted for 58 percent of his team's offense via scoring and assists, which was tops in the nation. He led the Big Ten in assists (6.2) while finishing second in scoring (18.8) and steals (2.4) on the way to winning first-team All-Conference honors.
Last season, he was expected to combine with transfer guard D.J. Newbill and returning wing Jermaine Marshall to form one of the best backcourts in the league. But when Frazier went down - and Newbill was forced to move from his natural shooting guard position to Frazier's point spot - Penn State struggled in the league.
With Newbill and Marshall as the only fairly consistent scoring options, the Lions (10-21 overall, 2-16 Big Ten) lost a school-record 14 games to open league play. Though they played better down the stretch, winning two of their final four regular season games (including an upset of then-No. 4 Michigan), they still finished in last place in the conference.
Chambers took solace in the fact that his team never packed it in, even when the odds of making it to the postseason were next to zero.
"I thought that team was the best team it could be by the end of the year," Chambers said. "Unfortunately, it didn't show up in the win column. But we were battling, man. We were right there."
Frazier will re-join a roster that returns 81 percent of its scoring (including four of its top five point-producers) and 82 percent of its rebounding. The only departing seniors are inconsistent starting center Sasa Borovnjak and starting guard Nick Colella, who was known more for his hustle than stat-sheet production.
Newbill, who led the team with 16.3 points and 4.0 assists per game, and Marshall (15.3 points) are the only returning players who averaged more than 7.0 points per outing. But the Lions will also welcome Pitt transfer John Johnson, a talented shooting guard, to the active roster in late December. Johnson is already on campus.
Two more guards - Pittsburgh wing Geno Thorpe and Minnesota point Graham Woodward - highlight a four-man recruiting class.
Though next year's team appears to be stacked in the backcourt, Chambers did not bite when asked if a four-guard attack (which Villanova used to get to the Final Four when Chambers was an assistant there in 2009) might be in order.
"We're going to put the best team on the floor," he said with a smile. "The guys that earn it, they're the guys that are going to play."
Playing time is sure to be a hot topic now that Chambers has begun individual season-ending meetings with his players. Including Johnson, Penn State now has 10 returning players on scholarship. And there are four prospects joining the team this summer.
The NCAA scholarship limit for Division I men's basketball is 13.
"These things will take care of themselves," Chambers said. "We're going to have individual meetings. Guys are going to ask about playing time, where they are and where we see them. ... I'm going to tell them the truth. I'm going to be brutally honest. I believe it will take care of itself. Either they want to be here or they don't."
Of course, there are no difficult decisions to be made about Frazier. If he returns healthy as expected, he'll take over his familiar point guard role. Newbill and Marshall will man the wings. Small forward Ross Travis and Brandon Taylor are both all but assured significant playing time, as is the transfer Johnson.
They all realize Frazier is the key to it all.
"Getting him back is a big step," Marshall said of Frazier. "We missed him. I'm not trying to make any excuses, but he's a great player. And then, going back to our natural positions, it opens a lot of things up."
"I'm excited to have him back," Newbill said. "I can't wait to get back out there and battle with him on the court and in practice. ... Just getting better and getting ready for next season."