In a two-week span, Penn State has gone from a team brimming with confidence to a team in desperate need of a win.
The Nittany Lions hammered Dartmouth to close out a record run through the nonconference schedule. Penn State was off to its best start in nearly two decades at 12-1, good enough to get votes in the AP Top 25 Poll. The players were excited to build on the success, but said they wouldn’t know where they stood until Big Ten play began.
The Nittany Lions were no match for conference powerhouse No. 4 Wisconsin in a 17-point setback that rattled the confidence built in the previous 13 games. They then suffered a disappointing setback to a struggling Rutgers team that coach Patrick Chambers described as a wakeup call.
It’s also turned Penn State’s conference matchup with Michigan at the Bryce Jordan Center at 7 p.m. Tuesday into a battle between desperate teams.
“Look, we haven’t really faced adversity in the nonconference,” Chambers said Monday. “In the games we did, I mean, they’re all one-possession games, but we overcame all that. But now you’re faced — OK 0-2 start — you’re faced with a little adversity.”
Penn State (12-3, 0-2) is looking to get back on track against the Wolverines (8-6, 1-1), who are coming off a 13-point loss to Purdue. Michigan had a four-game losing streak during nonconference play with losses to NJIT and Eastern Michigan.
Penn State is hoping the back-to-back losses are just part of a rough start to conference play, and not following last year’s path when the Nittany Lions dropped their first six Big Ten games.
“We can’t get too low on these losses,” Penn State guard D.J. Newbill said. “Like I said before, them games are over. Now we got to focus on the next one. I wouldn’t put our team this year in the perspective of last year. I think it’s a different team, totally different situations, it’s a new league, so I wouldn’t kind of say we’re on the downslope like last year.”
Chambers said the Nittany Lions were on their heels after the loss to Wisconsin.
Penn State didn’t respond well against the Rutgers, which entered the game with an 8-6 record.
The Scarlet Knights had lost four games by 17 points or more, fell short against Saint Francis and ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring and field goal percentage.
But Rutgers scrapped out a 50-46 win over Penn State.
“Rutgers was as desperate as I’ve ever seen a team, especially the last couple minutes there,” Chambers said. “We got to play a little bit desperate ourselves. We got to play a little bit harder and we should have those habits already. I think we just got to remind us of what that is.”
The Scarlet Knights grabbed four offensive rebounds in the final two minutes, beating the Nittany Lions to loose balls to help seal the win.
Chambers said he was disappointed in those plays and made it a focal point at practice. The coach said he thought his players let their shooting woes — Penn State finished 15 for 52 (28.8 percent) from the field — affect their effort on the boards.
Chambers said Penn State needs to come up with those rebounds against the Wolverines.
“We’re the ones who need to outwork them, dive on it, do whatever we need to do,” Chambers said. “So we need to get back to our roots, our foundation. It might take a little while. But we’re going to get back there.”
The coach is hoping the loss refocuses his team and admitted the Nittany Lions “dodged some bullets” in the nonconference schedule. Penn State went 7-0 in games decided by six or fewer points before the loss to Rutgers.
“Losing is never a positive in my eyes,” Newbill said. “But we definitely learned a lot. We got to play much harder on defense, rebounding, little plays. We’re not getting nearly enough dives, charges. We’re not getting enough attitude plays.”
After two straight losses, Chambers wants his players to live in the moment.
The early-season AP Poll votes and postseason projections meant nothing. And as Newbill said, all Penn State can do is move on from the setbacks.
“We have to continue to get better,” Chambers said. “That’s it. That’s it. We can’t think about March. We got to think about right now and control what we can control. What is that? Our attitude, our effort and if we take care of that, the score will start to take care of itself.”
Thorpe gets starting nod
Sophomore guard Geno Thorpe earned his first start of the season Saturday against Rutgers.
Thorpe replaced forward Ross Travis in the lineup and played a season-low 14 minutes due to foul trouble. Thorpe finished with two points and one rebound against the Scarlet Knights.
“I’m still going to play my role and do my part and do what I got to do in order to help the teammates and help my team win, so I’m still going to do my part,” Thorpe said.
Thorpe is averaging 8.6 points per game. Travis, who is averaging 4.7 points and 7.1 rebounds, started the first 14 games.