Penn State’s season has gone from promise to the border of implosion in a month.
The Nittany Lions dropped four of their last five contests – including the first three to open the Big Ten schedule. And Penn State (9-7, 0-3 Big Ten) cannot afford to let its season go much further downhill if the team wants to be playing games with meaning in another month.
Winning at home will be especially vital, and Penn State will get what is already its third conference home game at noon Saturday when Indiana (10-5, 0-2) visits the Bryce Jordan Center.
Chambers was understandably frustrated after a three-point loss to Minnesota on Wednesday. For the sixth time this season, the Lions blew a second-half lead as they faltered in the final minute with both Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill fouled out on the bench. The coach made it clear he thought his team was distracted by things they hear off the court, specifically through social media.
His message to players? Put down the phones.
“We have to turn it off. We all do, including myself,” Chambers said. “I have two phones, an iPad, a laptop. It’s crazy. We got to just put down the information, put down Facebook, Twitter, the social world and get focused, get re-focused, and get our identity back, play basketball and have fun doing it. And that’s what I was trying to tell them.”
Chambers does not allow players to post on Twitter during the season, but has not implemented any new policies regarding social media, saying taking it completely away would be “unfair.”
Penn State played what has been its best stretch of basketball in late November and early December when it beat St. John’s on a neutral site and had late-game leads against both Mississippi and Pittsburgh down before losing. The Lions were blown out of their first two Big Ten games – getting beat by a combined 36 points – and Chambers said players may be putting more pressure on themselves more than they were toward the beginning of the season.
The coach also pointed to a few plays he called “bad luck” for his team in its last two games. Chambers mentioned Newbill getting ejected against Illinois for shoving the back of an opponents’ head (something Chambers said shouldn’t have resulted in an ejection) and Frazier getting a late foul that should have been called against someone else as instances that have bit the team in the last week.
“If we could do a better job of that and finish games, our record could easily be very different right now, but for some reason, it’s not,” Chambers said. “And we’ve had a stroke of some bad luck. The ejection shouldn’t have been an ejection at Illinois, phantom fifth foul on Tim Frazier, things like that.”
In addition to the ejection, Newbill was on the bench for most of the Minnesota tilt, going scoreless in just 14 minutes, because of foul trouble. Newbill averages 33.9 minutes and 16.9 points per game, but in his last two outings, the Philadelphia native has scored only 14 points in 39 minutes.
Chambers said he watched all five fouls with Newbill and said the shooting guard grasps the notion he needs to be smarter. Chambers also said he reiterated how important Newbill’s presence is on the court.
“D.J. understands that he has to be on the floor,” Chambers said. “He has to be aggressive and he has to play with great confidence, and we need him. The ejection was silly, he’s a captain. I understand, you know, we all want to be tough guys, but we need to make better decisions and choices for our team.”
While Newbill is trying to get on track, so too is Indiana. The tradition and candy-striped warm-up pants will be there when Indiana comes to town, but the program hasn’t seen the high level of success it became accustomed to in the last few years during this campaign.
Indiana has dropped three of its last five, and is also searching for its first conference victory. Chambers has never beat the Hoosiers, as Penn State’s last win against the storied team came in Penn State’s run in the Big Ten Tournament three seasons ago. Speedy point guard Yogi Farrell runs the show for Tom Crean’s unit and is third in the Big Ten with 17.7 points per game.