It was two days after Penn State’s two-point loss to Illinois, and coach Patrick Chambers was determined to magnify the positives about his team.
He saw his players were talented enough to win games in the Big Ten. Chambers was frustrated by this observation, saying his team was one possession or one shot away from pulling out a victory.
But the coach stayed positive with nine games remaining on the schedule.
“I like the way this team’s competing,” Chambers said at the start of February. “I like this team. We got some young guys out there who are proving that they can play and we’re building a program here that people are really going to be excited about for years to come.”
Nearly three weeks later, Penn State has continued to challenge their opponents before falling short. The Nittany Lions (15-12, 3-11) have lost four of their last five games heading into Saturday’s game at Northwestern (12-14, 3-10) at 3 p.m.
It’s a matchup between two of the Big Ten’s bottom three teams. Rutgers sits in last place in the league with a 2-12 record.
Northwestern has won two straight after enduring a 10-game losing streak. Freshman point guard Bryant McIntosh, who leads the team with 12.3 points per game, scored a game-high 17 to lead the Wildcats to a 72-66 win over Minnesota on Wednesday.
McIntosh is part of a young core for Northwestern.
“They’ve been thrown into the fire at a young age,” second-year coach Chris Collins said Monday on the Big Ten coaches’ teleconference. “And the Big Ten is a big fire to be thrown into in the level of play and the level of coaching you have to face.
“But Bryant McIntosh has been fantastic. He’s been as good as any of the other top freshman in the league.”
Collins also sees potential in freshmen Scottie Lindsey and Vic Law. Lindsey started for the sixth time this season and scored 10 points against Minnesota. Law, a 6-foot-7 forward, has started 18 games and is averaging 6.3 points in 23.3 minutes.
Collins said his young players will need to continue to get stronger and develop in the offseason.
Youth was among the positives Chambers highlighted after the loss to Illinois.
The coach has listed off freshman guard Shep Garner, sophomore guard Geno Thorpe and redshirt freshman forward Julian Moore, among others, as he talked about building his program.
Garner has started all 27 games and ranks third on the team in scoring with 8.8 points per game. Thorpe has started 10 games and sits just behind Garner with 8.3 points per game. Moore was coming off a career-high 10 points against Illinois, showing his potential down low.
Garner and Thorpe were both in the starting lineup and Moore played 12 minutes in Penn State’s 55-47 loss to No. 5 Wisconsin on Wednesday.
The Nittany Lions, led by leading scorer D.J. Newbill, cut a 16-point deficit to five late in the game but couldn’t get any closer. It led Chambers to reiterate his feelings about his team despite its conference record.
“We’re battling,” Chambers said after the loss to Wisconsin. “We are battling. I like this group a lot.”
Penn State’s four losses in the last five games came against ranked opponents. The Nittany Lions dropped two close calls to Maryland and lost by 20 to Ohio State.
Thorpe said the losses have been difficult to handle, but the setbacks haven’t affected his mindset before games.
“I feel like we’re always going to win going into games,” Thorpe said Monday. “I never feel like we’re going to lose. We have had a couple heartbreakers, but I feel like going into every game that we’re going to win.”
Chambers echoed sentiment earlier this week.
He said his team expects to win. It’s a mentality he talked about earlier this month after the loss to Illinois, saying it was a change from “hoping and praying and wishing” in conference play in previous years.
But in the same thought, Chambers couldn’t ignore the negative that comes with a loss.
Said Chambers: “We’re frustrated as well.”
Notes: Penn State leads the series with Northwestern 28-15. … The Nittany Lions beat the Wildcats 59-32 in Evanston, Ill., last year. Northwestern shot 23.3 percent from the field in that game. … Newbill is averaging 21.1 points per game after his 29-point effort against Wisconsin. … Garner had his first scoreless game of the season against Wisconsin. He was 0 for 9 from the field.