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Column: Lions build from ground up

If Patrick Chambers wants to show future players a five-second snippet of the way he wants his Penn State teams to play, he will be hard-pressed to find a better sequence than the one that occurred midway through the first half of Thursday's win at Northwestern.

Hitting the floor has become second nature for the Nittany Lions.

Senior guard Nick Colella, trailing a Northwestern break, dove from behind and knocked the ball away from Wildcats guard Dave Sobolewski. Freshman forward Brandon Taylor dove toward the baseline, flinging the ball behind him back into play, toward the sideline, as he did so, and junior forward Sasa Borovjnak, who had started to turn upcourt in anticipation of a break the other way, dove back toward the baseline to save the ball and flip it to guard Jermaine Marshall.

Three dives. One earned possession. One entire bench of players and coaches on their feet.

"To get blown out at Minnesota, and then to come back and play the way they played … that one play just shows you everything about their character and who we are," Chambers said Friday.

But the play that really delighted Chambers -- and one that might have even made the triple-dive sequence, and Penn State's first Big Ten road win in two years, possible -- came before the tip.

The Nittany Lions were warming up on the baseline when a Northwestern player tossed a ball toward the ball rack at the other end of the floor. It caromed off the rack and onto Penn State's side of the court. Alan Wisniewski, a 6-foot-9 walk-on forward who has earned some significant minutes during the last few weeks, immediately jumped up, sprinted toward the ball, dived and slid as he corralled it.

Maybe it was instinct, maybe it was for the benefit of his teammates, maybe it was to psych out the opponent. In any case, it got the Nittany Lions going.

"Our players, our coaches, managers, absolutely erupted," Chambers said. "That set the tone for the entire game."

In just about two full seasons under their fiery head coach, the Nittany Lions have embraced Chambers' desired style of play -- all-out, all the time. The line of thinking is if you can out-work, out-hustle, out-scrap the other guy, it will be the difference when all else is equal.

That's been hard to see at times this season, because all else hasn't been equal. Penn State, in the vast majority of its 29 games, has been out-gunned in terms of talent, experience and/or depth. If Chambers had the players who could consistently make as many shots as the opponent or had the athleticism to shut those opponents down defensively, the difference in hustle might show up a lot more often.

And getting today's high-level college basketball player to show that kind of hustle is no easy feat. Kids want to look good, smooth, powerful. They want to be seeing flying high above the rim, not clawing like rugby players for a loose ball on the floor beneath it. Getting players to literally leave skin and blood on the hardwood goes directly against their nature.

But when you start to do it in practices as well as games, it begins to spread. It becomes not optional but as much a part of the players' daily routine as the layup line. To watch Colella, who has become so known for his diving that there is a Twitter page that pays homage to it, hit the deck was no great surprise, nor was watching Borovjnak, who has only a couple of games left in his career, do the same. What thrilled Chambers, though, was watching Taylor, a true freshman, give up his body for a first-half possession.

"We're laying a great foundation of things to come," the coach said.

Besides imprinting a mental and physical toughness that Chambers wants to be the foundation of Penn State's basketball culture, going hard for those loose balls underscores the message that no one is above anyone else on the team. I'll give up my body for the ball because I know my teammates will. What has helped the Nittany Lions win two games in the past nine days is the hustle, yes, but also better sharing of the basketball and improved communication on defense.

For the first year and a half of Chambers' tenure, you saw this kind of play from Penn State for long stretches at a time, but rarely for 40 minutes. You're seeing it now, and most of the veterans who are part of it will return next season, when Tim Frazier, transfer John Johnson and four freshmen -- who, like all freshmen, will follow the upperclassmen's lead -- join the fray.

"I think with the leadership that we have in place, and the leadership we're going to have for next year, it's going to continue to grow and get better," Chambers said. "You see these guys mature in front of your eyes."

As they've matured, the brand of basketball Chambers has worked hard to implement has become a part of the Lions' subconscious, in both wins and losses. They're doing things now that many other teams won't do, things those teams haven't had to do to beat Penn State.

Someday, perhaps sooner than many think, they will.

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