Penn State Basketball

Penn State basketball: Nittany Lions getting help from ‘the other guys’

They aren’t usually besieged by media requests, and they usually get through pre-practice routines without microphones being shoved in their faces.

In fact, they haven’t even garnered much attention from opponents this season either.

Opposing coaches choose instead to affix their focus on D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall, daring the “other guys” to beat them.

However, the Nittany Lions’ recent quality play has been due, in part, to an unheralded few. And when Penn State faces Illinois in Assembly Hall tonight on the Big Ten Network, those few will likely be needed again.

Tip-off is scheduled for 8:15 p.m.

“Their effort, energy and intensity is just second to none,” said Penn State coach Patrick Chambers, Monday during the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference.

The second-year coach was referring to the play of Nick Colella, Kevin Montminy, Ross Travis, Sasa Borovnjak and Alan Wisniewski during an important first-half stretch against No. 4 Michigan.

Travis hit a short jumper with 3:11 left in the frame, extending the Penn State lead to 30-25 with Newbill and Marshall on the bench with foul trouble.

The Wolverines finished the half on a 7-2 run and had the ball in hand with 14.9 seconds remaining when Michigan head coach John Beilein called timeout looking for one last bucket.

Chambers won the ensuing chess match when a double-team of Trey Burke forced a harried pass to Tim Hardaway Jr. whose desperation 3-pointer went begging as time expired.

“We forced (Burke) to give it up, which was really big because we didn’t want them to go into the half with any momentum,” said Montminy Tuesday at the team’s weekly media session.

Taken in context, a five-man Penn State lineup with three current or former walk-ons giving up just five free throws and one field goal to a Michigan lineup with four potential NBA draft picks was important to keeping the Nittany Lions close.

Montminy and Wisniewski are not scholarship players. Colella, a senior, began his career similarly, but earned a scholarship for this season.

Burke is a sophomore, Hardaway Jr. is a junior and Glenn Robinson III is a freshman, but all three are likely lottery picks whenever they decide to enter the draft. The shooting ability of freshman Nik Stauskas is also likely to make him a commodity for NBA franchises.

Against the Illini — winners of four straight — Chambers will probably need similar production from his ancillary pieces.

Travis had 11 points and 10 rebounds against the Wolverines, while Borovnjak scored a career-high 17 points on 7 of 9 shooting. Colella had his best floor game, maybe of his career, with nine points, six rebounds and four assists.

Illinois (19-8, 6-7 Big Ten) isn’t likely to change from the defensive strategy that has helped keep Penn State winless — make everyone else beat you.

Newbill, a redshirt sophomore, leads the team in scoring, is fourth in Big Ten scoring (16.2) and is averaging 18.2 points through the last five games. Marshall, a redshirt junior, is second on the team in scoring at nearly 15 per night.

Conference coaches have tried to slow the pair all season. Chambers adjusted by implementing a new offensive set in January that utilizes Borovnjak’s court vision and awareness at the top of the key.

Chambers calls the set “corner” and said it’s a variation of an NBA offense. Instead of isolating the 6-foot-9 Serbian on the block, Borovnjak plays more in the high post above the foul line.

“It’s a great offense,” Borovnjak said. “I like it because I get a lot of choices. I can handoff the ball to the guards or face up (with) a jump shot ”

The set gives Chambers a much-needed second facilitator.

“I’m giving (Sasa) some freedom to make some decisions, which takes some pressure off D.J.,” Chambers said.

The Nittany Lions (8-17, 0-13 Big Ten) will need another balanced effort to contend with an Illinois defense surrendering just 51 points over its last three games.

Brandon Paul, a 6-foot-4 senior guard who penetrates well off the dribble, leads the Illini in scoring (16.4) on the season. However, in conference play fellow senior D.J. Richardson leads the team with 14.7 per night (Paul 13.9 in Big Ten).

They comprise the kind of backcourt that has dogged Penn State all season. The duo could beat defenders off the dribble, force help and get the Lions into another foul-plagued night.

In its last three road games, Penn State is giving up about 30 points per night from the free throw line.

Last season, No. 25 Illinois was upset 54-52 in the Bryce Jordan Center in Chambers first Big Ten win.

After the Illini, the Nittany Lions will have just four more chances to earn their first win of this conference season. They will return home Wednesday to host Michigan.