UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State will take on Nebraska today in what should be two teams desperately seeking their first conference win.
The Nittany Lions have struggled in several areas this season, but perhaps most problematic — because of its domino effect — has been the inability to consistently make shots.
Patrick Chambers’ message to his team has been to keep playing hard on defense even when the offense runs dry. The message hasn’t changed, but maybe its delivery has.
“I just want to see a sense of urgency,” Chambers said. “When you’re desperate and you have that sense of urgency you tend to play harder for longer.”
Penn State (8-9, 0-5 Big Ten) is allowing opponents to shoot 45.5 percent from the field in conference play. That’s worst in the Big Ten, just ahead of No. 18 Michigan State’s 45.4 percent.
After the 81-72 loss to the Spartans, D.J. Newbill talked about playing with a sense of desperation. He and Jermaine Marshall combined for 56 points that night and appeared exhausted from the effort at the post-game press conference.
“It (was) huge just to see the ball go in the basket,” Marshall said when asked about the team’s previous offensive struggles this season. “But we have to do it on defense.”
At his weekly press conference on Monday, Chambers referenced No. 13 Butler’s ability to play tough defense through shooting droughts. He could have easily referenced Wisconsin as well.
The Badgers (13-4, 4-0 Big Ten) are the only unbeaten team remaining in the conference. They’re not currently ranked, but after victories against then-No. 12 Illinois and No. 2 Indiana they’re likely to be.
Bo Ryan’s bunch is ninth in scoring average in the conference and in the middle of the pack in shooting percentage. But, they’re undefeated in part because they allow just 38.8 percent shooting from the field (second in the Big Ten) and just 50 points per game (first in Big Ten).
The teams have different personnel, but the comparison shows that you can be an average offensive team and still win games with great defense. That’s what Chambers has been preaching to his team.
“Missing shots can’t affect your (defense) and that’s what happens sometimes,” Chambers said. “I think that’s when teams go on runs against us we’re missing shots or missing layups. But we just have to fight human nature and just keep getting better.”
Against the Cornhuskers (9-9, 0-5 Big Ten) the Nittany Lions aren’t likely to be punished as harshly for periods of offensive ineptitude. Nebraska’s scoring average is last in the conference at 48 points per game. Penn State is one spot above at 54.
However, the Huskers are a good defensive team that is giving up just 62 points per night for third best in the league.
They are led in scoring by Dylan Talley, a 6-foot-5-senior guard who averages 13.2 points per game. Ray Gallegos, a 6-foot-2-sophomore guard is second at 13.1 points.
The Huskers will be without Brandon Ubel, a 6-foot-10-senior who gave the team three double-digit scorers with 12.1 points per game.
Ubel fractured his elbow and is out indefinitely. He missed the team’s last two contests.
With a void in the middle, Penn State’s frontcourt might be able to shrug off its struggles and help Newbill and Marshall shoulder some of the offensive load.
“We need production out of that five spot,” Chambers said. “We’re going to play them all and whoever is playing the best that night that’s who were going with.”
“We want to give the bigs the ball,” he continued. “That should loosen things up (on the outside) if they can get a couple of easy ones.”
“Then again even if they don’t score, just make good decisions,” Chambers said.
“It’s going to be an absolute dog fight tomorrow and we understand that and (Nebraska) understands that so we just have to be prepared for that mentally.”