UNIVERSITY PARK — After about 15 minutes of stretching exercises that featured lots of boisterous, inspirational banter between players and coaches, the Nittany Lion basketball team huddled near half court.
The Bryce Jordan Center was quiet for the first time since the players filed in. Their voices were low. Whatever was said in that huddle is likely to stay there.
Then the huddle broke. The players meandered side-by-side over to the baseline not appearing to be in a hurry. Then suddenly they all, almost simultaneously, hit the deck, diving on the floor as if they were chasing a loose ball.
Patrick Chambers’ second season as Penn State’s basketball coach is well under way.
A few minutes before his players sprawled their sinewy bodies across the floor, Chambers spoke about the development of his team.
“First week’s been good, it’s been encouraging,” said Chambers, whose team opens its season Nov. 9 against St. Francis. “Our veterans have done a very good job of understanding ... how I want them to compete every day. And the freshman, you know, are freshman. And they got a ways to go still. But they’re starting to pick it up.”
Perhaps most interesting in Chambers’ almost 13 minutes of back-and-forth was what he said would be the key to the team’s success this season.
It wasn’t about All-Big Ten guard Tim Frazier, who was ranked 54th in the CBSsports.com top 100 players in the nation earlier this month. Nor was it DJ Newbill, whom Chambers is excited about getting on the court.
“I told them if we’re gonna be really good this year, it’s gonna be because of our big guys,” Chambers said. “Because we know what we’re gonna get from our guards.”
Junior Sasa Borovnjak and sophomores Jon Graham and Ross Travis return as the three biggest frontcourt contributors last season. For the young big men, statistically it was a confounding season. The Nittany Lions led the Big Ten in offensive rebounding but also ranked 11 out of 12 in defensive rebounding.
The impressive play of Frazier and the passion that pours out of Chambers when he talks about Newbill, can make it easy to forget the importance of the big men.
But Chambers is happy with their progression and he knows his guards can only take him so far.
“Their struggles (last season) just came in inexperience and youth,” Chambers said. “That’s all it was. You saw glimpses. Sash has that incredible game against Ole Miss (15 points and four rebounds on 7-for-7 shooting). Jon has a couple incredible games in the Big Ten, where he hits the two free throws against Iowa. I mean, these guys have it in them.”
Graham got his weight down to 225 pounds in the offseason and improved his vertical leap. Chambers said Borovnjak is healthy and finally confident in his knee after recovering from an ACL tear two seasons ago. Travis has been a favorite of Chambers because of his tenacity on the court.
“They had a very good offseason.” Chambers said. “They’ve changed their bodies. Their feet are quicker; they’re dunking every chance they get now, when maybe last year they didn’t do that. (Now) our guards need to be able to trust them too ... so they’re trusting them more ... and because of that trust they’re playing better.”
Trust is clearly something Chambers already has in his guards.
Adding Newbill to Frazier and junior guard Jermaine Marshall has Chambers excited about his backcourt. At the end of last year he said they could have had the best backcourt in the country with Newbill in the fold.
“I am standing by that — two feet in. I’m two feet in with that one,” Chambers said.
So far, the two haven’t played together much in practice, according to Chambers. Instead, they have been guarding each other in an attempt to maximize the competition level of practice.
“They go at it, they’re fierce,” Chambers said. “When they step in between the lines, they’re not best friends anymore.”
It’s that level of competition that Chambers hopes will fuel them against Big Ten powers like Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State.
“I bring up Aaron Craft (Ohio State), I bring up Trey Burke (Michigan). I bring up those guys constantly,” Chambers said. “(Frazier and Newbill) gotta know how those guys are gonna compete versus you for 40 minutes. You need to do it to each other. So, it’s that much easier in a game if you make it harder right now.”
The season will have its ups and downs, but if Chambers gets what he thinks he will from his guards and his big men with a year of experience under their belts, Penn State could surprise doubters in the Big Ten this season.