The staple of Penn State’s basketball program in Patrick Chambers’ first two years as head coach was simple: Defense and rebounding.
The “little things” — the hustle plays, the dives, the drawn charges — used to be what gave the team any sort of edge it had in the Big Ten. Penn State was not going to beat a team simply by outplaying an opponent on the offensive end. And though the team won just 22 games in the previous two seasons, when it was successful, it was because of the little things.
Entering their sixth conference contest — a 7 p.m. Saturday tilt against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. — a glance at the Big Ten stat sheet shows the Nittany Lions (9-9, 0-5 Big Ten) are not doing two things well in particular: Defending and rebounding.
Penn State ranks dead last in the conference in scoring defense (74.1 points per game) and, in conference-only games, is 11th in rebounding margin, having the opposition average 7.4 more boards per game.
Unlike Chambers’ first two years the offense has been there, with the Lions fifth in the conference in scoring at 76.8 points per game. But without the little things, the results have been the same with Penn State still searching for its first league win nearly one-third of the way through the Big Ten slate.
“We don’t have much room for error, we have to play close to perfect,” Chambers said Friday. “We’re close, but we have to play even better than close. I said to them the other day, ‘We’re on the hump. Just keep putting us on the hump, because eventually you’re going to get over that hump.’ That’s been my drive, that’s been my push, but we’ve got to do the little things.”
Chambers pointed to tighter officiating because of new rules as the reason his team is not making some of the plays it has made in the past. He said his players are “playing not to foul” and end up fouling, the same way athletes get injured when they play not to get hurt.
The third-year head coach, however, said he has reminded his team of its roots and wants to get back to the foundation Chambers preached since he arrived in Happy Valley.
“Now I’m to the point, let’s just go out and play hard,” Chambers said. “Let’s focus on doing the little things, get back to playing Penn State basketball. Let’s defend, let’s rebound, let’s do all that stuff. We can’t worry about fouling.”
Penn State is going to have its hands full on the glass Saturday, as Purdue is one of the better rebounding teams in the Big Ten with 39.6 rebounds per game. Big man A.J. Hammons leads the way with 6.9 rebounds per game. As far as the Boilermakers’ scoring goes, they leave most of that to Johnson and Johnson. Brothers Terrone and the younger Ronnie Johnson are the only two Purdue players who average double figures, scoring 13.4 and 11.5 ppg, respectively.
One aspect on the defensive end Chambers said the team was working on this week was containing ball screens, which hurt his squad in an 80-67 loss to Michigan on Tuesday. The coach pointed out ball-screen defense is just one area where the team is suffering because players are not on the same page.
“On certain possessions we have three guys, maybe four guys communicating,” Chambers said. “We’re trying to get to a point where we have five guys communicating. When we have five guys, we’re a very good team, very good defensive team. Everyone knows their role, everyone understands where they need to be.”
With the lack of defense or a presence on the glass, Penn State’s frustrating season continues to slip away from the team. While there are many flawed areas to point out, Penn State has played good basketball in spurts, and Chambers said “our spurt-ability is great, but when we hit one of those rough patches, man, is it rough.”
Penn State has played good basketball at times, and in the midst of a streak of six losses in seven games, Chambers is making sure to point that out.
“I feel like if I talk about it less and stay positive, talk about what we do well, then I think that is going to help these guys get through some things that are hurting us right now,” Chambers said. “I can’t keep harping on it, because it gets in their heads and you see the results.”
Note: Allen Roberts will return for Penn State on Saturday after missing two games with a family emergency. Chambers noted Roberts returned to campus Thursday night and would practice Friday after spending nearly a week at home in Ohio. Roberts — a transfer from Miami (Ohio) is usually the first option off the Lions’ bench and averages six points and 20 minutes per game.