UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State’s fresh start came seven hours before the calendar flipped to 2014, but despite a promising start, the team turned a seven-point lead to a 16-point loss in the second half of the opener to its conference slate.
The Nittany Lions (9-5, 0-1 Big Ten) fell to Michigan State at home on New Year’s Eve, and while their next opponent is not a top-5 team, the Lions’ second Big Ten contest comes on the road. Penn State faces Illinois (12-2, 1-0) at 2:15 p.m. today in the newly renamed State Farm Center (formerly Assembly Hall) in Champaign.
Coach Patrick Chambers knows how challenging the Big Ten can be when his team is not wearing its home whites. And in his first two seasons, Penn State was 1-17 in conference road games – with the lone victory coming in last season’s road finale at Northwestern.
“It doesn’t get any easier, because now we go on the road,” Chambers said after falling to the Spartans on Tuesday. “And there’s nothing like a Big Ten road game.”
While the first 20 minutes of play and the 47 points the Lions scored during them instilled some hope in the 7,379 fans that flocked the Bryce Jordan Center on the final day of 2013, Michigan State looked much more like the No. 5 team in the country after halftime, while Penn State mustered just 16 points in the final 20 minutes.
The 16-point margin was Penn State’s worst defeat of the 2013-14 campaign, but it was still a game — like all 14 games the team has played so far – that it had a lead in the second half. Guard D.J. Newbill, who leads the squad with 18.8 points per game, acknowledged he and his teammates have to play complete games.
“We played great for 20 minutes, but the game is 40 minutes,” Newbill said. “We got to take some of the good things we did in the first half, watch film and bring them to the whole game.”
After a game in which in which the two periods could not have been more different, Chambers said he would use film from the first half to show his players what type of team it can be. Subsequently, there are obvious lessons that can be learned by viewing the second half.
“Mentally, we have to get way tougher,” Chambers said. “They were tougher, and they showed it, and I felt like we had poor body language and did things I haven’t seen in a while. And that’s got to change.”
Chambers noted after the loss that he felt the Lions let the poor shooting that plagued them in the second half against Michigan State dictated their effort in other aspects of the court. And if that was the case, it showed in rebounding, as the Spartans pulled down 28 boards to Penn State’s 10.
Rebounding, along with defense were the two components of the game Chambers preached since coming to Penn State. Though the team’s offense is way up from where it was a year ago (the Lions’ 79.9 points per game ranks fourth in the Big Ten), they’re near the bottom of the conference in defense and rebounds. Penn State’s average of 73.6 points allowed per contest is the Big Ten’s worst mark, while its plus-1.6 rebounding margin is 10th in the 12-team league.
“Because you had a turnover, doesn’t mean you put your head down,” Chambers said. “Just because you missed a shot doesn’t mean you don’t sprint back and get in guarding position and do your job. That’s where our youth showed and that’s what we have to get to.”
The Fighting Illini enter Saturday’s contest averaging half a rebound less per game than the Lions, but the team has excelled on defense, surrendering just 62 points per game. Offensively, they are led by guards Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams, who average 19 and 13 points per game, respectively.
Illinois just missed the cut of the top 25 in the last AP poll, garnering 57 votes — the most of any non-ranked team. John Groce’s team would likely earn a ranking with a win against Penn State, as the team edged Indiana in overtime earlier this week.