Finishing the 2011-12 out-of-conference schedule with an 8-5 record, first year head coach Pat Chambers and his Nittany Lions set out to embark on the inaugural 12-team Big Ten season.
Now, that 8-5 mark must be put into some sort of context, as Penn State’s opponents during the out-of-conference slate had a combined record of 64-79. To contrast, the Lions’ next three games will be against Big Ten opponents whose combined record is 30-7.
First up is a trip to Ann Arbor on Thursday to take on the No. 16 ranked Wolverines, who have been shooting lights out this year, hitting 49 percent from the field. Led by junior Tim Hardaway Jr., and freshman guard Trey Burke, a former Penn State commit, Michigan likes to push the pace and let it rain from beyond the arc.
“We know we are going to Michigan, that they are a top-25 team,” Chambers said. “We cant worry about who is ranked or not, we have to go in there and say ‘Hey, we are Penn State basketball, we’re here to compete.’
“We are building a great foundation, these kids are playing hard and getting better each and every day. Even when we lose, I feel like someone is getting better and there is a positive to be taken away.”
Chambers is happy with how his team has progressed during the first two months of the season and is confident they are in a better place right now.
“I think what you are going to see from us is a team that competes, a team who isn’t afraid to fail anymore. This is a totally different team, we have an identity now, built on defending, rebounding, the little things.”
Those are good qualities to hang your hat on, especially when shots aren’t falling – which has happened on more than one occasion so far this season.
On the offensive end, Penn State is led by junior guard Tim Frazier, who is averaging 35.8 minutes, 17.2 points, 7.1 assists and 5.8 rebounds per game – all highs for the Nittany Lions. Jermaine Marshall has overcome an early season suspension to start in five games and place second on the team with an average 9.5 points per game in 12 contests. With a mix of veterans and young guys getting major minutes, Chambers is pleased with how his guys have progressed.
“I am excited about the direction we are in,” Chambers said. “I would say collectively, we have some room for growth. Individually, I think some guys are ahead of where I thought they would be, others aren’t. For 15 guys on the roster, we need to keep tapping. We can get better, that’s the great thing, and what gets everybody to practice, we can get better.”
If there is one area the former Boston University coach is most happy, it is with his team’s fire and passion with which they play.
“I just think intensity, even when we make mistakes out there we are doing it hard, I don’t think we are lazy out there," Chambers said.
“Our effort is where it needs to be right now. Is it there for 40 minutes? No. Is it there for 30? Yeah, I think so. If we can put together a 40-minute game we will be pretty good.”
With an eerily similar record to the 2009-10 Penn State team who started 8-4 in the non-conference before losing 12 straight Big Ten games, this installment of Nittany Lions is trying not to repeat that.
Chambers has implemented his style of play so far, and will rely on his team’s heart on the defensive end to compete in conference play.
‘We need to take care of the basketball, and make sure we get shots," he said. "There are going to be more nights where we aren’t hitting our shots, but as long as we are defending, rebounding, and giving ourselves a chance, we are headed in the right direction.”