Penn State begins the final three games of the non-conference schedule — before its Jan. 3 Big Ten opener at Wisconsin — with its last home game of the fall semester against Delaware State at 2 p.m. today.
The Nittany Lions’ offense was brilliant in the 78-70 win over Army last week. Penn State (5-4) shot just under 51 percent from the field — its best output of the season — and had season highs in points (78), assists (13), 3-pointers (7) and its 29 made field goals were the most in the last two seasons.
But if you’ve ever had occasion to talk basketball with Patrick Chambers, you would have quickly surmised to which half of the court his heart belongs.
“Obviously these next games are important to us for more reasons than just wins,” Chambers said in his weekly teleconference. “It’s about us getting better and us continuing to develop these young guys and D.J. (Newbill) and Jermaine (Marshall) at the point There’s a lot that’s going into this week and approaching this game on Saturday. We need to continue this progression that we’re on.”
The duo of Marshall (6th, 15.1 points) and Newbill (7th, 14. 9 points) form the second highest scoring backcourt in the Big Ten posting 30 points per game, behind only Michigan’s Trey Burke (3rd, 17.1) and Tim Hardaway Jr. (8th, 14.8), at 31.9 per game.
“(But) we have to defend much better,” Chambers said. “Our defense is not where it should be. This time last year it was much better and that’s something that we’ve focused on the last three days. We do need to develop some confidence going into the Big Ten but right now as a team it’s about us and we need to continue to get better and develop great habits.”
The Hornets (5-5) have scored 70 or more points in their five wins and are led in scoring by Tahj Tate.
The 6-foot-4-sophomore guard averages 15.5 points per game on the season but is averaging 24 per game and shooting 54 percent from the field in the Hornets’ current two-game winning streak.
They began the season by winging three straight, but lost five in a row during a ten-day span in November. They lost to Northwestern in Evanston 69-50.
This will be just the second meeting between the two schools. Penn State won the last meeting 64-53 in the Low Country Classic in Charleston, SC in 1993.
Chambers said his team’s defensive intensity against Army was inconsistent and he warned a similar performance would be costly against Delaware State.
“I felt like we had major lapses in the Army game major lapses,” Chambers said. “We played hard for four minutes and took four minutes off in this game on Saturday we can’t do that. They’re very talented; they’re very athletic; they’re very quick (so) if you’re going to look to take possessions off you’re going to be down ten. So that’s been a focus this week, just winning each possession and taking it one possession at a time and trying to win four-minute games.”
In addition to Tate, Tyshawn Bell is also a viable threat for the Hornets. The 6-foot-7-sophomore forward averages 8.4 points per game and is shooting 45 percent from the 3-point line.
When Penn State’s defense has been at its best this season its defensive rotations have been crisp, each player anticipating his next assignment without hesitation in lockstep with his teammates. When it has struggled, rotations have appeared reactionary, which consistently forced defenders into closeout positions.
La Salle took advantage and connected on 16 3-pointers. So when is Chambers’ defense at its best?
“We’re talking, we’re in stances, we’re playing hard, and that’s what it has to be,” Chambers said. “I’m watching Delaware State and other teams that play great defense and if you have the volume up you can hear sneakers, you can hear people talking, five guys moving in sequence it’s fun to watch a great defensive team.”
“Now I go back against Bucknell for two halves you saw that,” he continued. “Now for whatever reason we slowly went the other way and this week I’ve seen it get back together. I use a formula: play hard + talk x listen = trust and it’s all about trust on the court and in the locker room.”
Penn State played nine games in about 30 days this season and Chambers said the rigors of that schedule allowed some bad habits to creep in.
The final three non-conference games will be spread over three weekends, which Chambers hopes will give his team some much needed time to rest and recuperate.
“We’re bumped and bruised just like everybody else is in the country,” he said. “Everybody is a little sore. (But) it was good to give them a couple of days off on Sunday and Monday, mentally and physically and academically. The good news is they came in and shot. They shot on their own; which is a great thing for this program and the foundation we’ve set.”