UNIVERSITY PARK — It’s a phrase Patrick Chambers has uttered dozens times this season and one that is painstakingly true for Penn State’s head coach. And every time he says it, Chambers becomes more annoyed by the words coming out of his mouth.
“We’re close. And I hate saying that term, I’m tired of hearing it,” Chambers said Monday at his weekly press conference. “But we are. We’re a stop, we’re a rebound, we’re two made free throws, we’re two non-silly fouls away.”
Penn State has sustained a handful of gut-wrenching defeats during the course of the season, more specifically in the last month. With five of their last six contests ending in frustration, the Nittany Lions will hit the road and face Michigan (11-4, 3-0 Big Ten) at 8 p.m. Tuesday night in the Crisler Center.
The Lions are 9-8 and have lost their first four conference matchups, but, as Chambers pointed out, that win total is a few plays away from being in the or close to the teens. Penn State has had second half leads in 16 of its 17 games — the lone exception being a loss to Illinois earlier this month when the team trailed by just two points at halftime. So, it’s easy to see why Chambers has dropped the “we’re close” line so many times.
With a depleted roster in his first season and an early season injury to Tim Frazier last season, Chambers won just 22 games in his first two campaigns at Penn State. Fans, students and others are accustomed to seeing the losses pile up. But this team is different — by far being the most talented roster Chambers has worked with at Penn State.
The Lions aren’t getting blown out like they were in the last two seasons. Their last two losses have both been by three points, which can only add to the dissatisfaction.
“When you’re watching us out there we’re not an overmatched team anymore,” Chambers said. “We’re competing. We can play with these guys. Now we got to believe it and got to get it done.”
How to get that to happen is something Chambers consistently wonders.
“I can feel it. I can touch it. And I’m probably more mad at myself than anything because we’re so close I’m trying to figure out how do I get us there,” Chambers said. “What is it? How do I get that one more inch, one more step — what is it? — that takes a team that is a losing program in the last two years and get it over the hump?”
If recent history shows anything, facing Michigan may help Chambers find an answer.
Penn State pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the college basketball season last February when the squad knocked off then-No. 4 Michigan in the Bryce Jordan Center. John Beilein’s team went on to play for the national title last season, but is missing some key pieces.
Trey Burke — the former Penn State verbal commit, who stared at Michigan — made the jump to the NBA, while big man Mitch McGary is sidelined indefinitely after getting back surgery in the last month. Even without McGary, Michigan has rattled off three straight Big Ten wins and is getting the job done on defense, allowing just 60.3 points per conference contest.
One thing Michigan does not do especially well, however, is get to the foul line. The Wolverines have attempted 299 free throws this season, the least amount in the Big Ten — and that’s good news for Penn State.
The Lions have struggled to avoid whistles lately. They out-fouled Indiana 28-19 on Saturday, and Tim Frazier fouled out for the second straight game, while D.J. Newbill also hit the foul limit in Wednesday’s loss to Minnesota.
“Foul trouble is killing us in the second half, let’s be real,” Chambers said. “If we could stop the silly fouls, the 94 feet away fouls, that crushes me. I understand some of the nitty-gritty fouls, make them earn it at the foul line. But letting them get in the 1-and-1 with 12 minutes to go, 11 minutes to go — in the second half, you’re playing not to foul and you end up fouling.”
Foul trouble is part of the problem, but there are others that need to be remedied in the closing moments of games.
Chambers is right: Penn State is close. But for now, that’s all the team is.
“It’s like a vicious puzzle that we got to put together,” Chambers said. “We’re missing a couple of pieces that I can’t quite figure out where they are.”