UNIVERSITY PARK — When then-No.5 Indiana came, saw and conquered Penn State at University Park back in January, Nittany Lions coach Patrick Chambers was leery the loss could linger.
After Northwestern dispatched Penn State 70-54 in the Bryce Jordan Center three days later, a disappointed Chambers called the loss “embarrassing” and heaped the blame on his plate.
On Thursday night when the Nittany Lions face the Wildcats in Evanston, Ill., they will have a chance to exact some revenge, prove they learned their lesson and earn their first road win in two seasons.
“I just think the Indiana loss held us back a little bit,” Chambers said of the 74-51 loss to the Hoosiers at his weekly press conference on Tuesday.
The 7 p.m. contest against Northwestern will be televised on ESPNU and comes on the Wildcats’ Senior Night.
“I was just disappointed with our approach,” Chambers continued about the Jan. 10 meeting. “I remember that game like it was yesterday. And I remember how I felt. I just felt like we weren’t in a good place and that’s my job. I never want to put it on the players. I have to look myself in the mirror and make sure I do everything in my power to get them ready ... and that game for whatever reason …”
Now, Penn State (9-19, 1-15 Big Ten) finds itself in a similar position.
Coming off a brutal 73-44 shellacking at Minnesota on the Golden Gophers’ Senior Night, Chambers’ group will have to develop the collective amnesia they failed to show earlier this season.
“It’s one game,” Chambers said. “Have to move on. Have to continue to get better. We haven’t been beaten like that all year. It happens…”
“It’s one game. Let’s put it behind us. Let’s move on. Try to learn from it, try to get better and make sure it doesn’t happen again. That’s been our approach...”
So why should this time be any different?
“We’re a whole different team from then,” said D.J. Newbill. “We’ve gotten so much better in so many different areas. Offensively, defensively, playing harder, playing together.”
Some statistics seem to support the assertion.
The Nittany Lions had been hot offensively, netting 43 percent from the 3-point line and scoring more than 71 points over a four-game stretch that ended with an 84-78 shocker over the Wolverines.
Newbill now finds himself fourth in conference scoring (15.9), third in assists (4.2) and 19th in rebounding (5.3). He is the only Big Ten player to appear in all three categories during league play.
Jermaine Marshall (15.6) is now fifth in scoring, forming the Big Ten’s second-highest scoring tandem with Newbill (Michigan’s Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are first).
In the frontcourt, Sasa Borovnjak is averaging 12.8 points per game and shooting 63 percent from the floor in his last five, while Ross Travis currently ranks fifth in conference rebounding (7.1).
However, shooting 27 percent from the field and 21 percent from three against the Gophers has a way of dousing offensive confidence.
That’s why Chambers still believes defense is the key, even against a depleted Wildcats club.
Northwestern (13-16, 4-12 Big Ten) has lost scoring threats Jared Swopshire and Drew Crawford to season-ending injuries. They have also floundered down the stretch, losing eight of their last nine games and six in a row.
However, they still have guard Dave Sobolewski, who carved the Nittany Lions’ defense for 18 points and five assists in January.
The 6-foot-1 sophomore point guard is of the exact fleet-footed variety that has flummoxed Penn State all season.
Reggie Hearn, the Wildcats leading scorer at 13.5 per game, is also still available. The 6-foot-4 senior’s versatility previously baffled the Nittany Lions for 14 points, as he wreaked havoc from the foul line (7 of 11).
Sobolewski’s speed in combination with Hearn’s flexibility and the emotion of senior night – the power of which Penn State knows well – has Chambers’ attention, and he hopes, the attention of his players.
“All I’m going to say to them is it’s senior night,” Chambers said of his message to his team. “That’s all I have to say. It’s another senior night. You saw how Minnesota played. They played out of their minds. Senior night. You saw how we played … senior night.”
“(Northwestern is) going to play with great energy and great enthusiasm,” he continued. “They haven’t won in six tries.”
And because Bill Carmody’s variation of the “Princeton offense” adroitly manufactures offense for players of any talent, Chambers doesn’t want his team to overlook the wounded Wildcats.
“It doesn’t matter who’s on the floor (for them),” Chambers said. “They run great offense. Everyone’s skilled, everyone can hit a three and when you have that capability you’re scary.”
However, this will certainly be Penn State’s best chance to nab a road win for the first time in Chambers’ nearly two-year tenure.
While he has played the role of conquering visitor as an assistant at Villanova and then as a head coach at Boston, Chambers wants his current group to experience the feat.
“I love playing on the road,” Chambers said. “Especially playing in the Big Ten. It’s the best. There’s nothing like going on the road and winning, although we haven’t done it yet, but we will. But there’s nothing like it. You have to go in with great confidence…
“There’s nothing like winning in someone else’s house. There’s nothing like it. It’s going to be an amazing feeling for these kids. If it happens this year, great. If it happens next year, fine. But hopefully it happens sooner than later.”