Penn State’s nonconference basketball schedule has neither been a rousing success nor an incredible hardship, but it will leave fans, players and especially coach Patrick Chambers asking “What if?”
The Nittany Lions have held second-half leads in all of their 12 games so far, but four of those advantages have fizzled into defeat. None, however, stung as much as last Saturday’s gut-wrenching overtime loss to Princeton when Chambers’ squad blew a 20-point lead at Rec Hall.
Finishing games has by no means been Penn State’s strong suit, but the team will have one last non-Big Ten tuneup before conference play as Mount St. Mary’s visits the Bryce Jordan Center at 2 p.m. Sunday.
After squandering the lead against Princeton in the final eight minutes of regulation in front of the sold out crowd in the “Return to Rec,” Chambers said the team had an early-week meeting to get the loss “out of their systems.” The coach said after viewing the game film, his team looked at the clock too much down the stretch and got anxious. But, forever an optimist, Chambers put his own encouraging spin on what happened
“I’m glad it happened because it’s going to teach us a lesson about finishing games, finishing strong, keeping a clear head, playing for each other and just learning how to execute down the stretch,” he said. “It’s going to turn into a positive and I certainly believe that.”
The loss to Princeton was difficult for the entire team, but even more so for star point guard Tim Frazier. The fifth-year senior had a chance to tie the game twice in the final five seconds — once at the free throw line and then again with a buzzer-beating layup — but did not cash in on either opportunity.
Chambers said he met with Frazier and backcourt partner D.J. Newbill last Sunday night and had a one-on-one meeting with Frazier later in the week. The coach said he stressed getting tougher because of the situation, and reminded the 2011-12 All-Big Ten First Team selection he ruptured his left Achilles tendon 13 months ago.
“Everybody wants Tim to be Tim, but he’s still a little rusty,” Chambers said. “He wants to make a major impact. He has to be patient and has to continue to get better and continue to be coached and he’s all on board.”
Without a game this past week because of finals, the team had some extra time off. While the majority of students flock elsewhere for the holidays, guard John Johnson will get his first shot at his new hardwood home against the Mountaineers.
With the semester in the books, Johnson, a 6-foot-1 transfer from Pittsburgh, is now eligible to play for the Nittany Lions more than a year after he decided to come to Happy Valley. Johnson played in all of Pittsburgh’s 39 games in the 2011-12 season (his freshman year) and averaged 4.2 points per game.
Chambers said Johnson will get minutes, but it is unclear as to how much, as the coach said he does not want to mess with the chemistry his rotation of six players has developed. But Johnson certainly will provide depth, some experience and a player who can hit the long ball — the Philadelphia native shot 38.4 percent from beyond the arc in his lone collegiate season.
“It’s another scoring option out there, it’s another good free throw shooter,” Chambers said of Johnson. “So, in the last couple of minutes, you’re going to have him out there. He’s a good ball-handler, he has a good understanding of the game. It adds more pieces to your end-of-the-game situation.”
Mount St. Mary’s enters the contest at 3-7, but the team does have a victory against Bucknell — which beat Penn State by 10 earlier this season — to its name. The Lions will have some more time to recuperate after facing the Mountaineers, not returning to the court until opening the Big Ten season when No. 5 Michigan State visits the BJC on New Year’s Eve.
Chambers is hoping his nonconference schedule puts his team in position to not be asking “What if?” in March.
“Though the results aren’t what I want them to be, but man, did we play a variety of styles and did we compete,” Chambers said. “I thought like we gave ourselves a chance to win, even in the losses.”
Dickerson eligible to play
Christmas came four days early for Chambers’ team.
Seven-foot center Jordan Dickerson was granted eligibility to play immediately by the NCAA on Saturday, and the Southern Methodist transfer will be available to play Sunday.
Dickerson spent last season playing for Larry Brown at SMU, but it was announced in June he was packing his bags for Happy Valley. By typical NCAA rules, Dickerson would have to sit out one full season, but the team applied for a Legislative Relief Waiver requesting the NCAA to waive the requirement. Dickerson is eligible for the remainder of the 2013-14 campaign and will have two more seasons of eligibility afterward.
“We are excited the NCAA has approved the waiver for Jordan,” Chambers said in a statement. “He has worked hard to develop during his six months with the program and we look forward to working him into our lineup and taking advantage of his presence in the post.”
Dickerson played in 26 games for the Mustangs last season, averaged 3.5 minutes per contest and scored a total of 13 points. The Brooklyn native played high school basketball at both Florida’s IMG Academy and Abraham Lincoln High School in his hometown, and is the first 7-footer to put on a Nittany Lion uniform since Jan Jagla in 2004.