In a six-day span in late November and early December, the Penn State men’s basketball received an early glimpse of what to expect in Big Ten play.
The Nittany Lions played ACC opponent North Carolina State on the road and opened their conference schedule at Iowa before hosting Wisconsin on Monday night. They’ll now return to nonconference play until they head to Maryland on Jan. 2.
“That’s going to be the schedule in the Big Ten,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said Wednesday at the Bryce Jordan Center. “There’s going to be very similar setups, and we have to be mentally tougher to say we have to compete the same way every single night — no matter if you’re making or missing shots or turning the ball over.”
With the Big Ten tournament set to be played one week earlier this year since it will be at Madison Square Garden, the conference’s teams needed to play two games in early December. Chambers liked the schedule change, pointing out instead of preparing to face a team like Michigan State on the road, Penn State will be working to improve in nonconference play against George Washington at home at 4 p.m. Saturday. The Nittany Lions (7-3, 1-1) can now focus on cleaning up their mistakes while knowing where they stand in the Big Ten.
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Penn State is one of eight conference teams to split its first two games. No. 3 Michigan State, No. 21 Purdue and Ohio State were the only teams to open with a pair of wins. And the Spartans, Boilermakers and No. 14 Minnesota are the lone Big Ten teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25.
Chambers feels his team has the potential to break through in the league this season.
“The way they conditioned their bodies throughout the summer and throughout the preseason, if we can condition our minds very similar, then we’re going to be able to win some games here and really compete in the Big Ten because that’s the goal,” Chambers said. “The goal is to move on up in the Big Ten.”
The Nittany Lions opened conference play with their first win at Iowa since 2001. They put themselves in position to beat Wisconsin on Monday night despite trailing by 17 points in the second half, but they couldn’t complete their comeback in a one-point loss.
“I think that’s a testament to how hard we play and how we don’t ever quit and how talented of a team we really have,” Penn State forward Lamar Stevens said.
Stevens thinks the first two conference games show the Nittany Lions could “really compete” in the Big Ten this year. But he also said his team needs to improve moving forward.
Chambers used the past three games, starting with its road game against N.C. State, to measure his team’s progress. The Nittany Lions were inconsistent in the loss to the Wolfpack, jumping out to an 11-0 lead and trying to rally late in the second half. He felt his team lacked consistency in the win over Iowa, and the coach saw a team that was “tired or sluggish” against the Badgers.
“I think we missed out on some opportunities,” Chambers said. “We can’t get them back, but we’re going to learn from those experiences.”
Looking for a boost
Chambers is looking for more production from his bench after the first two conference games.
In the Nittany Lions’ win over Iowa, five reserves combined to go scoreless on 0 for 5 shooting. Against Wisconsin, four reserves managed a combined one point and went 0 for 2 from the field.
“I just don’t want a drop off in intensity in what we’re trying to do,” Chambers said of his bench play.
Chambers praised freshman guard Jamari Wheeler for his play off the bench. Wheeler has been active defensively, hounding opposing guards and providing a spark with his energy throughout the season. He earned the most time off the bench against Iowa (20 minutes) and Wisconsin (17 minutes), but he only attempted four shots combined in both games.
“Jamari’s been fantastic,” Chambers said. “He works so hard. The ball’s going to fall for him, and he’s got to shoot. Like I already told him, ‘You got to shoot the ball. You’re open, shoot the ball. You’ve been shooting beautifully.’”
Chambers is also relying on Nazeer Bostick — who is averaging 5.9 points in 17.9 minutes — to provide a spark.