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Men's Hoops Starting Five - Breaking Down the Big Ten Opener

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Riding a four-game winning streak, the Nittany Lion basketball team (8-4) is set to open its 2013 Big Ten season on Thursday night at Wisconsin (9-4) inside the Kohl Center (8:30 p.m. on BTN).

Penn State enters its 21st Big Ten season playing its best basketball of the year.  The Lions knocked off Duquesne, 84-74, to win their fourth-straight game on Saturday.  The win also marked the fourth-straight game of 70 or more points for the Nittany Lions.

Get ready for the Big Ten opener with the Starting Five.

8440288.jpegNew Year, Confident Mentality
The start of conference play could not have come at a better time for the Nittany Lions, who have played superb basketball during the four-game winning streak.  Head coach Patrick Chambers said on Wednesday that the Lions have exhibited a winning mentality on the practice floor, which has translated into a confident, but gritty approach during the last four games.

"This isn't the same old Penn State with their approach and their mentality," Chambers said.  "This is a group that is playing with confidence.  This is a group that doesn't fear failure.  They don't really care how they look.  They are playing for each other.  They are playing for the name on the front of the jersey...They want to get better.  They want to change perception.  And if we continue to do that and compete for 40 minutes, you give yourself a chance to win."

Team Defense
The key to success in the Big Ten?  Defense.  The Nittany Lions have stressed the importance of playing good team defense since practice began in October.  During the past three weeks, the team has made visible strides on the defensive end of the floor.  The Lions head into conference play allowing teams to shoot 40.7 percent from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc.  Penn State's perimeter defense will need to continue improving, but the Lions have been very active on the defensive end of the floor, which has helped contribute to the recent offensive output.  Defending and rebounding are crucial for the Lions to compete on a nightly basis in the Big Ten.

"As long as we defend and rebound, we'll give ourselves a chance," Chambers said.  "Obviously on the road, you have to make shots.  If you don't make shots, it's going to be a long day.  You have to defend and rebound in this league, and you have to make your free throws.  If you do those things and don't turn the ball over, you will give yourself a chance to win."

Balanced Attack
A big key to Penn State's recent surge on the offensive end of the floor has been the scoring balance.  The Lions got a season-best 25 bench points in the win over Duquesne, which included a career-high 15 tallies from Nick Colella.  The senior is 11-for-20 from three during the last three games.  Sophomore point guard D.J. Newbill is a different player than he was at the start of his rein as the team's point guard in the absence of Tim Frazier.  Playing with great poise and command, Newbill scored 23 points and pulled down 12 rebounds for his first double-double in Penn State Blue and White against Duquesne. The Philly native leads the team in scoring (18.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.3 rpg) since the four-game winning streak began.  Fellow guard Jermaine Marshall heads into the Big Ten averaging 14.6 points per game. 

Inside, Sasa Borovnjak is currently playing the best basketball of his career.  Borovnjak is averaging 12.2 points per game during the last five contests while shooting 67 percent from the field during that span.  Sophomore Ross Travis, who leads the team in rebounding for the season (7.4 rpg), and freshman Brandon Taylor are each averaging more than seven points per contest.  For the Lions to be successful night in and night out in Big Ten play, the scoring balance needs to continue.  Averaging 78.5 points per game while shooting 47 percent during their last four outings, the Lions are entering the conference season with confidence.

"We feel really confident. We feel that this game was a momentum game for us, and we realize that the Big Ten is going to have some of the toughest games that we're going to face this year," Newbill said.  "We're just working hard. Our principles don't change. Play hard, defend, tough, gritty; that's our identity."

True Road Game
The Nittany Lions will open Big Ten play on the road for the fourth-straight season on Thursday.  The trek to Wisconsin marks just the second true road game on the schedule this season (at La Salle on Dec. 5, L 82-57).  Road games in the Big Ten are challenging in every arena around the conference.  The Kohl Center is no exception.  The Nittany Lions are 2-16 all-time at Wisconsin and have not won in Madison since 1995.  Execution on both ends of the floor is paramount every night the Lions take the floor, but it is more important on the road.  Penn State will play hard every time it steps on the floor, but making shots and playing good team defense is essential for the Nittany Lions in Madison.  Additionally, getting off to a quick start is always crucial on the road.

"I think we have had a little bit of success over the last four games, which is great, but we are on the road," Chambers said.  "We haven't been on the road in a long time.  We've got to come in with confidence and understand the gameplan and try to execute it to the best of our ability and give ourselves a chance to win.  But this is definitely a different group in the way they approach things."

Scouting Wisconsin
Wisconsin enters the Big Ten with a 9-4 mark overall (8-1 at home), but finds itself in a situation like Penn State after point guard Josh Gasser suffered a season-ending knee injury during preseason practice.  The Badgers have adjusted quite well without Gasser in the lineup.  The senior trio of Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Mike Bruesewitz has carried the leadership torch for Bo Ryan's club without floor general Gasser.  Berggren leads the Badgers in scoring with a 13.4 scoring average.  Junior Ben Brust (11.8) and Ryan Evans (11.5) also average in double figures.  Freshman forward Sam Dekker is averaging just under 10 points per game (9.8).  Wisconsin comes into the clash with Penn State having won three-straight games over Green Bay, Milwaukee and Samford.

"I think they are playing very good basketball right now," Chambers said.  "They are Wisconsin.  You know what you are going to get.  They've got skilled guys out there.  They aren't changing much (without point guard Josh Gasser).  They've got skilled guys out there.  They've got good basketball players.  They have three seniors who have been around the block."

Follow's Tony Mancuso on Twitter @GoPSUTony

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