When an opponent like No. 5 Indiana comes to town, Patrick Chambers knows there’s a tendency for those on the outside to assign even greater significance to the game’s outcome.
Is this a measuring-stick game? Is this some type of barometer? Is it at least a great opportunity?
“It’s a great opportunity because Indiana is the next game on the schedule, not because they’re No. 5,” Chambers said during his weekly teleconference. “You try not to fall prey to human nature with the rankings and the media and social media.
“Look, Indiana is a good team,” he continued. “They’re the next team on the schedule, we play them at the Bryce Jordan Center and we have to compete and play Penn State basketball and try to give ourselves a chance to win.”
The Nittany Lions (8-5, 0-1 Big Ten) will put a five-game home winning streak on the line against a Hoosiers team (13-1, 1-0 Big Ten) that spent the first tew weeks of the season ranked No. 1 before falling in overtime to in-state rival Butler 88-86 on Dec. 15.
The 7 p.m. contest comes on the first day of the spring semester and will be televised on the Big Ten Network. It comes a year and a day after Penn State pushed the Hoosiers to the limit last season.
Indiana went 16-for-24 from behind the 3-point line on Jan. 8, 2012, and got 28 points (7 of 9 from three) from then-junior Jordan Hulls en route to an 88-82 victory in the Jordan Center.
The Hoosiers’ offense might be even better this season as they return most of last year’s roster, added a key contributor and sport five different players who average double digits in scoring.
Cody Zeller, a preseason All-American and Player of the Year pick, leads the team in scoring and rebounding with 16.6 and 8.1, respectively. In addition to the 7-foot Zeller, 6-foot-9-senior Christian Watford averages 12.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and shoots 43 percent from 3-point range.
In the backcourt, Hulls averages 10.9 points, while freshman point guard Kevin “Yogi” Ferrell’s dynamic court vision and penetration (5.4 assists per game) makes the Hoosiers’ shooters even more dangerous.
Junior Victor Oladipo rounds out the starting five with 13.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per game and could be the Hoosiers’ most valuable player.
“Oladipo, I think he’s one of the best players in the country,” Chambers said. “In watching him and his foot speed and what he does, he’s very disruptive. He does a phenomenal job for them. He really sets the tone with his energy and his effort.”
And if that wasn’t enough, junior forward Will Sheehey comes off the bench with 12.4 points a game and provides toughness and even more perimeter shooting.
With an offense that scores nearly 88 points per game, the Hoosiers won’t just stress the Nittany Lions’ defense, Penn State’s offense will also have to keep pace.
Against Wisconsin, the Nittany Lions nearly stole the game despite 15 turnovers, shooting just one free throw and allowing the Badgers to secure 13 offensive rebounds.
A repeat performance versus the Hoosiers will likely yield different results.
“Taking care of the basketball is going to be huge,” Chambers said. “The way they score is off your lack of execution or your poor defense and they get out and run if you turn the ball over.
“And then you have to prevent them from getting second opportunities,” he continued. “So we have to do a much better job on the defensive glass. It’s going to be a tall task, (but) we’ve practiced hard the last two days and I think we’re ready for the challenge.”
Penn State’s quality play without injured guard Tim Frazier is starting to turn heads around the conference, so there is little chance the Nittany Lions will sneak up on teams this season.
“They made a great comeback in that game against Wisconsin,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said. “That game was up for grabs. Wisconsin took the lead and Penn State never went away. I think that’s what Pat’s (Chambers) done with his team.
“They’re talented,” Crean continued. “They miss Tim Frazier, but every game they are that much more comfortable with one another, and you can see that.”
Chambers is also sure that teams are starting to get a sense of how good D.J. Newbill can be.
The sophomore converted two ferocious dunks in the face of 6-foot-10 Wisconsin center Jared Berggren. The first dunk showed up as No. 4 on ESPN’s Sportcenter Top Plays on Jan. 3.
“I think the country now knows that this is a pretty good basketball player,” Chambers said of Newbill. “And he should be one of the better guards in this league — he’s only a sophomore.”
Newbill is the only Big Ten player to rank in the Top 15 in the conference in scoring (seventh), assists (ninth) and rebounding (13th). His four 20-point games this season are tied for third-most in the league and his seven career double-doubles are also tied for third-most among active conference players.
Jermaine Marshall scored a game-high 19 points (9-for-14 field-goal shooting) against the Badgers and kept Penn State close early and nearly helped steal it late. He made his first four jumpers and hit a shot that cut the lead to 50-49 with 2:52 left.
As a team, the Nittany Lions have shot over 40 percent in the last seven games after shooting under that mark in the first six.
Chambers has been pleased with his team’s recent play but still tried to put game No. 2 in the Big Ten season in some context.
“This is a marathon,” Chambers said. “This is a journey. This isn’t the end-all, be-all. We have three games this week. We just have to continue to get better and be the best team we can be by the end of the year.”