UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Penn State basketball is out to a 6-1 start on the year, coming off a dominant 86-48 win against Oral Roberts last weekend.
In a change in scheduling though, Big Ten play comes quicker than usual with the Nittany Lions traveling to NC State Wednesday night for a Big Ten-ACC Challenge matchup before heading to Iowa to open conference action Saturday in Iowa City.
Things hardly get easier for the Nittany Lions, with Wisconsin traveling to Happy Valley for a 7 p.m. outing Monday in the Bryce Jordan Center before resuming nonconference play for the remainder of December with four of five games at home.
Regardless of the schedule though, Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers is pleased with what he's seen so far, calling this year's Nittany Lions a confident bunch.
Through seven games last year, the Nittany Lions were 4-3 headed into last year's Big Ten-ACC Challenge meeting against Georgia Tech. A year later though, Penn State won its first five straight, including a dominant 85-54 win against Pittsburgh in the Legends Classic at the Barclays Center in New York before falling short in battle against then-No.16/19 Texas A&M.
"I think the way we competed against Pitt was great," Chambers said. "It shows all our hard work over the last seven years. To go out against A&M, I thought we all believed we were going to win the game."
Looking back from a statistical standpoint, Penn State was shooting 42 percent from the field, averaging 73 points per game and 34.4 rebounds per game.
Scoring at least 80 in all but two games this year, the Nittany Lions are averaging 82 points per game, shooting 48 percent from the field, averaging nearly 38 rebounds per game.
Individually, juice-man Josh Reaves was averaging less than four points per game with three steals. Through seven games this year, he's the third leading scorer on the team, averaging 11.8 points per game with a team-high 18 steals per game.
Penn State spent the earlier part of this week working on Penn State, or as Chambers noted, getting better at doing simple great. Spending some time to self scout over the weekend, his takeaways revealed the simplest of things as the Nittany Lions gear up for a pivotal stretch of the schedule before diving into the heart of Big Ten play.
"A block out on a free throw line situation, a rotation," Chambers said. "Sprinting back in convert defense, transition defense. Just communication. It always goes back to the simplest of things."
Among a more big picture look at what he's learned from his 6-1 Nittany Lions this year though, comes down to speed.
Alongside Reaves, true freshman Jamari Wheeler has brought serious quickness off the bench this year for the Nittany Lions. Coming off a career-high outing against Oral Roberts with 14 points, seven rebounds, five steals and four assists, he's a vital piece of making those around him better too.
"He loves to get after it and it doesn't matter who it is either," Chambers said. "I think that's why Tony's playing at such a high level because Jamari pushes Tony every day in practice. I think you're starting to see Tony reap the rewards of that because of it."
Although he's a key piece for the Nittany Lions, Chambers is pleased with what the entire bench has contributed this year, including something a little more intangible, raising the level of competition in the gym.
"Jamari brings a competitiveness to practice that's unmatched," Chamber said. "He wants to win every drill, every possession and I think that filters through that scout team where, we're battling."
Looking at the Matchup
Penn State and NC State meet in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge for the first time since 2000, although the most recent meeting between the two teams came in mid-November 2012. At 5-2 on the year, NC State has lost its last two games, but highlighted the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis with a 90-84 win against then-No. 2 Arizona last week.
With Penn State ranked fifth nationally in steals per game (11.0) led by Reaves and Wheeler, NC State also enters the matchup close behind, ranked 26th averaging 9.3 per game. Reaves' 3.0 steals per game is first in the Big Ten and eighth nationally while Markell Johnson is leading the Pack with 2.29 steals per outing.
Graduate transfer guard Allerik Freeman is leading the team with 15.9 points per game, while senior forward Abdul-Malik Abu is leading the way on the boards grabbing 6.7 rebounds per game.