You wouldn’t have known Penn State was in the midst of a four-game losing streak from the collective demeanor at Monday’s practice.
As the Nittany Lions limbered, led in stretching by strength coach Brad Pantall, a chorus of boisterous chatter emanated from the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center.
“I just think we have to get better as a whole team — from top to bottom,” said sophomore guard and team captain D.J. Newbill. “That’s what we’re here for today. You see everybody is upbeat, everybody is ready to practice.”
“That’s the good thing about being in this program,” he continued. “Our attitude is — we’re ready. Everybody is still upbeat and nobody’s morale is down.”
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After Thursday’s 70-54 home loss to Northwestern head coach Patrick Chambers liked how his team responded.
“They had their own team meeting after Thursday night; they ran their own film session on Friday,” he said. “That’s a credit to the captains, along with Tim Frazier. So you see those few things and maybe that wasn’t done in years past. I know they care. As long as I know they care we’re going to come everyday with that ‘lunch-pale mentality.’
Newbill said the team meeting was simple. Nothing elaborate, nothing complicated.
“It was just that point in the season where you have to look each other in the eye and tell yourself you have to give everything you have for your brother next to you,” Newbill said.
“That’s the good thing about our team,” he continued. “We’re a brotherhood at the end of the day. So no matter how high or low things get we’re still going to stick together and be one.”
Reading the psyche of his team is just one of Chambers’ many duties as head coach. During Penn State’s four-game non-conference winning streak in December, he said his players were aware of, and trying hard to change, the negative perception of the program.
So after two 31-percent shooting performances against Indiana and Northwestern followed by a season-worst 25 percent against Purdue, is the team putting too much pressure on itself to change the hearts and minds of its detractors?
“There’s no doubt,” Chambers said. “They want to win so badly that they’re not making shots and they’re making mistakes.”
According to ESPN’s play-by-play tracker, the Nittany Lions missed nine layups in the game, five in the first half. For a team that Chambers has called “feel good,” meaning it plays hard when shots go in, blown layups are confidence killers.
Missing easy ones didn’t seem to dissolve Purdue’s self-belief. The Boilermakers missed eight layups for the game, but still managed to make eight more field goals (23 for 51) than Penn State (15 for 58).
The Nittany Lions are shooting 29.7 percent over the last three contests.
So it’s time to scrap the offense, right?
“I’m not changing anything,” Chambers said.
He liked his team’s shot attempts and said shots have been falling in practice. Though he admitted opponents have been able to dictate the pace of play, he likes who’s been getting shots and where they’re coming from on the floor. They just aren’t going in.
“We have to make some shots,” he said with a laugh. “The game is simple when you make shots. Everything looks great. It’s like a golfer who’s squeezing the golf club. We’re squeezing a little bit right now. We have to just relax and let the game come to us a little bit.”
Hotel pool parties
and stubborn resolve
If Chambers believes his team is tight, what is he doing to loosen them up?
Before Penn State’s noon tip-off against Purdue, Chambers rousted his players from their slumbers and took them to the hotel pool for some pre-game fun.
“We had a pool party at 7:20 a.m. We jumped in the pool we loosened them up. They were playing their music,” Chambers said. “We were blaring in the hotel. Just telling them to have fun, enjoy this experience, enjoy playing together and continue to build trust.”
Then, he said, his team came out against the Boilermakers, missed a few shots early and tightened back up.
Chambers said his next move might be to have an open practice where fans and students come and watch, perhaps an attempt to simulate an in-game environment.
However, despite the recent struggles, the second year coach seems to have a stubborn confidence in his group even if they don’t yet have it in themselves.
“We’re going to get it back,” Chambers said. “It’s only a matter of time before we start hitting shots again. I really believe that.”