Patrick Chambers and Penn State basketball will get a second chance at an 18-game Big Ten schedule beginning with today’s 8:30 p.m. road opener against Wisconsin.
After last season’s 4-14 conference record, the perception of Penn State basketball needed reshaping as this season began. But Tim Frazier’s Nov. 18 season-ending Achilles tendon injury dealt that process a serious blow.
However, the Nittany Lions emerged 6-2 in Frazier’s absence, playing a confident brand of basketball that Chambers hopes has engendered something more than just a four-game winning streak.
“I hope it’s a mentality that we have,” Chambers said Wednesday via teleconference from Madison, Wis. “We’ve had a little bit of success over the last four games which has been great, but it’s different on the road. We haven’t been on the road in a long time (so) we have to come in with confidence to give ourselves a chance to win. But this is definitely a different group in the way they approach things.”
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The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network and will mark Penn State’s fourth straight season opening conference play on the road. Penn State has never won in Wisconsin’s Kohl Center.
“I just think the mentality is different; this isn’t the same old Penn State,” Chambers said. “This is a group that’s playing with confidence, this is a group that doesn’t fear failure.
“These guys are coming out, they love being here, they love each other and they want to get better and they want to change the perception. And if we can continue to do that and compete for 40 minutes, you give yourself a chance to win.”
D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall have been the main impetus behind the burgeoning shift in the Penn State paradigm.
Newbill is averaging 18.5 points and 7.3 rebounds in the last four games. He also enters conference play as the only Big Ten player to rank in the conference’s top 15 in scoring (sixth, 15.8 points per game), assists (seventh, 3.9) and rebounds (14th, 6.2).
Since Frazier fell, Marshall has improved every facet of his game, becoming more effective on defense and more efficient on offense.
He leads the team in steals with 2.1 per game. No other active Nittany Lion averages one (Frazier averaged 2.3 in four games). Marshall’s scoring has also increased from 10.3 points in four games with Frazier to 16.8 per game in eight games without him. The junior’s shooting also improved from 30 percent to 44 percent, all while logging the fifth most minutes in the conference and also spelling Newbill at the point.
Marshall’s metamorphosis also earned him a spot as a team captain, an honor already bestowed upon Newbill in the preseason. Chambers also named senior Nick Colella as a team captain.
“I wanted someone to help D.J. lead the team. But I wasn’t ready to name them captains,” Chambers said of the decision’s timing. “They have to earn it. They have to bring it everyday. … It has to be a consistent 30 days.”
“And those two guys for the last month or so since Tim has gone down, have stepped up. … They’ve earned the right to be named captains.”
After shooting 5-for-27 from the 3-point line in the season’s first eight games, Colella is a team-best 11-for-20 from three and averaging nine points over the last four.
In Penn State’s current win streak, it has gotten significant contributions from several players, a trend that Chambers knows must continue to have any success in a conference that boasts six schools in the Associated Press Top 25.
Senior Sasa Borovnjak is averaging 10.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and shooting 70 percent from the field in his last five games after averaging less than 2 points with 2.4 rebounds in his first seven.
Freshman Brandon Taylor and sophomores Ross Travis and Jon Graham could also figure prominently against the size of Wisconsin.
Taylor is a threat in pick-and-pop situations with Newbill or Marshall, leading the team at nearly 38 percent from behind the arc.
Graham has seen his minutes cut with the emergence of Borovnjak but he will likely be called upon against the Badgers, who have three players 6-foot-10 or taller.
A sprained left knee has slowed Travis some in the last two games. His athleticism and ability to secure extra possessions with offensive rebounds will be needed against a methodical Wisconsin team that values every possession.
The Badgers (9-4) bring a three-game winning streak into the conference opener, and are 174-16 in home games under Philadelphia native Bo Ryan. They are led by 6-foot-10 senior forward Jared Berggren, who averages 13.4 points and leads the Big Ten in blocked shots with 1.9 shots per game.
Wisconsin also endured its share of injuries when presumed starting point guard Josh Gasser went down with a torn ACL in October. Like Frazier, the junior will seek a medical redshirt at season’s end.
Sophomore guard Traevon Jackson and junior Ben Brust have shared time at the point for a team led last season by first team All-Big Ten point guard Jordan Taylor.
“They’ve adjusted really well,” Chambers said. “They’re playing very good basketball right now —they’re Wisconsin — you know what you’re going to get.”
Senior Ryan Evans, who is 6-foot-6 and freshman Sam Dekker, who is 6-foot-7, are versatile forwards that a slightly hobbled Travis will have to contend with.
The Badgers make sure every possession counts, averaging just nine turnovers a game and allowing just 56.3 points per game. In contrast, Penn State has scored over 70 points in its last four games.
“You’re going to see all our weaknesses exposed because in a possession game that’s what happens,” Chambers said. “And it’s going to be a possession game. If you’re not making that rotation, if you’re jogging back and you’re not playing hard. … If you’re not going to do the little things that made us successful during our home stretch, you’re going to see the complete opposite.
“Teams in the Big Ten they play hard. Everybody is talented and everybody can make shots. It’s just who’s going to play hardest the longest, and for longer stretches. Am I happy to be playing at Wisconsin right now? No. But we will definitely learn a lot about this team.”