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Column: Lions leave coach at a loss

It was pretty clear that, even as late as Wednesday afternoon, the loss his team had suffered to No. 5 Indiana on Monday night was still gnawing at Penn State men's basketball coach Patrick Chambers.

Patrick Chambers saw his squad suffer two double-digit losses at home this week.

If only that would have been the worst part of Chambers' week.

Three days after being brushed aside by a team many believe will wind up in the Final Four, the Nittany Lions were handled in an unnervingly similar fashion by Northwestern, a team that has never been to the NCAA Tournament and had entered Thursday's game with six losses in its previous nine games. At no point in the final 30 minutes did the Wildcats seem in real danger of losing their grip on what was a 16-point win.

"I'm not sure what positivity I can take out of this one," Chambers said moments later. "And it falls on my shoulders."

That's a telling quote because very few people are more positive than Chambers. He doesn't sugar-coat things or rationalize them, but his constant belief that better things are on the horizon is one of the foundations of his coaching strategy and, really, who he is as a person.

This game, though, left a taste in his mouth that Chambers was not familiar with. At no point Thursday night, even when the Nittany Lions took an early 12-8 lead, did the coach look out onto the floor and see a team that scratched and clawed and fought, the way the Nittany Lions had all of last season, even as they went 12-20, the way they had at Wisconsin and for the majority of this season.

"We are practicing hard and with great enthusiasm," Chambers said. "I can't tell you what happens when we get in a game, though."

Part of the problem is leadership. Penn State's undisputed leader, Tim Frazier, has not taken the floor since Nov. 18. That has left the burden to D.J. Newbill, a redshirt sophomore in his second season of college ball, and Jermaine Marshall, a redshirt junior who was in and out of the starting lineup last season. Both their games and their personalities would have made them excellent lieutenants to Frazier's general this season, but so far both are struggling under the weight of their additional responsibilities. No one else on the team has brought the kind of sustained fire teammates will follow, at least not on game nights.

Chambers and everyone else in the program knew that Frazier's season-ending injury changed the season, and what Penn State was capable of in almost every aspect of the game. He also knew that he could still get the remaining Nittany Lions to play hard and to show steady if not tremendous improvement.

For most of November and December, Chambers' team did those things. That it regressed so much during the past two games was a shock to the coach's system and cast a pallor over the program. Casual Penn State fans looked at Thursday's score or watched some of the game and thought "Same old Nittany Lions." Those who follow the program more closely were disheartened in a different way.

And Chambers? The 42-year-old coach was asked Thursday night if he had ever taken a loss so hard.

"I feel bad every loss. That's why I'm a coach," Chambers said. "If I start accepting losing, I'll resign. That's not what I'm about."

Chambers has not yet accepted losing and appears to be in no danger of doing so. He was positive about one thing after the game -- he positively doesn't want to feel that way again. He will unless he's able to help the Nittany Lions find a sense of urgency they didn't show this week.

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