Penn State men’s basketball: Nittany Lions hope to stiffen defense against Michigan State

Penn State's D.J. Newbill, who scored 37 points against Purdue on Saturday, will lead the Nittany Lions against Michigan State on Wednesday in East Lansing.
Penn State's D.J. Newbill, who scored 37 points against Purdue on Saturday, will lead the Nittany Lions against Michigan State on Wednesday in East Lansing. CDT file photo

Defense and rebounding.

They’re supposed to be the staples of Penn State basketball. Nittany Lion coach Patrick Chambers talks about them constantly. His players bring them up, too. Week after week, defense and rebounding are focal points at practice.

But Penn State’s defense and rebounding have repeatedly faltered during the team’s 0-5 start in the Big Ten. Chambers has talked about getting back to the program’s roots during the slide, getting back to playing tough defense and battling on the boards. His players have echoed that goal.

The Nittany Lions (12-6) are still talking about their defense and rebounding going into their conference matchup at Michigan State (12-6, 3-2) at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

“Our defense is not good,” Chambers said. “It’s not good. Not to where my standards are for a defensive team and rebounding team, so we’re working on defending and rebounding and we’ll get there.”

Penn State ranks last in the Big Ten in scoring defense and last in field-goal percentage defense in conference games. The Nittany Lions have allowed conference opponents to score 74.4 points per game while shooting 48.2 percent. They’ve also been outrebounded in four of five games and given up crucial offensive rebounds down the stretch.

Penn State heads to East Lansing, Mich., as the lone winless team in conference action.

“I know everybody thinks the sky is falling,” Chambers said. “It’s not falling. It’s not falling. We got to keep a great attitude. We got to keep getting better and create better habits. That’s what’s affecting us. We’ve gotten poor habits in the last couple minutes of a game where we need better habits.”

Those habits cost the Nittany Lions in their latest setback Saturday.

After going on an 8-0 run, Penn State led Purdue 48-40 with 12:33 to play. Defensive and rebounding lapses allowed the Boilermakers to get back in the game.

Penn State went to a 2-3 zone on Purdue’s ensuing possession and got burned from beyond the arc. The Boilermakers got the ball to Vince Edwards at the right elbow, pulling Penn State’s Payton Banks to the middle of the paint with Purdue center A.J. Hammons on the right block. Edwards hit Dakota Mathias for a wide-open 3-pointer from the left corner before Banks could close out.

Penn State gave up an offensive rebound and another wide-open 3 on Purdue’s next trip down the floor.

After a jump ball on the scramble for the rebound, Jon Octeus set the Boilermaker offense at the top of the key, where he received a screen from Hammons. Penn State’s Shep Garner went under the screen and Brandon Taylor didn’t provide help, giving Octeus a clean look to drill the shot.

Another offensive rebound and another 3-pointer brought Purdue within 50-49.

Again, Garner got lost under a screen and Taylor didn’t hedge. Both Penn State players stood at the foul line when Octeus loaded his 3 from the top of the key. Garner could only turn his head to watch it go down once he got through the pick.

“When it goes 48-40, we got to make that next shot or get that next stop or get that next rebound to really become the killers that I’m looking for us to become,” Chambers said, “or that team that’s ready to put somebody away and close the door and nail it shut.”

Penn State left the door open with each defensive breakdown.

Purdue scored on five straight trips down the floor, thanks to four offensive rebounds, after going down by eight. The Boilermakers’ fifth possession ended in a 3 by Kendall Stephens when Penn State lost track of him on an inbounds play — Purdue’s fourth 3-pointer during the stretch.

The Nittany Lions rank last in conference play in 3-point field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot 42.5 percent.

So defense is on the players’ minds going into Wednesday.

“We’re just continuing to do the things we’ve been doing, and maybe focused on defense a little bit more and our rotations and our concepts,” Taylor said.

Chambers said his team has been late on rotations and late to get a hand up on a shooter. The coach said missed shots and turnovers have affected his players’ energy defensively at times, too.

But even after Purdue stunned Penn State to send the game to overtime, Taylor said the effort shouldn’t waver.

“I think that playing hard isn’t something that we should have to turn on and turn off,” Taylor said. “I think it’s just something that we should be used to doing and something that we should do no matter what, if it’s the first half, second half or overtime.”

The issues have contributed to the Nittany Lions’ five-game losing streak.

“You can’t let one turn to two, you can’t let two turn to three, and obviously we’ve done that,” Chambers said. “And now we got to get ourselves off the mat and we got to start punching away and competing again.”

Notes: Michigan State leads the series with Penn State 33-7. The Spartans are 20-1 against the Nittany Lions in East Lansing. Penn State won its lone game on the road, 72-68 in 2009, led by Talor Battle’s 29 points. … D.J. Newbill remains the Big Ten’s leading scorer with 21.7 points per game. ... Penn State started Big Ten play 0-6 last season. ... Michigan State’s Branden Dawson leads the conference in rebounding with 9.5 per game. Spartan forwards Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello are first and second in the conference in field goal percentage, respectively. Schilling is shooting 68.4 percent and Costello is shooting 61.5 percent. ... Michigan State is coming off a 75-59 loss to Maryland. The Spartans’ other conference loss also came to the Terrapins, 68-66, in double overtime.