UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - As Penn State men's basketball
preps for its final two nonconference games of the 2016-17 season, Nittany Lion
head coach Patrick Chambers met with members of the media in a midweek check in
to preview the final few outings before conference play.
As exam week is winding down, Penn State men's basketball had a bit of an earlier exam schedule as Chambers noted that he suspected it might be a cause for the slow start in last weekend's near comeback against Pitt at the Prudential Center.
"I don't want to defend - I don't want to give these guys excuses but its exam week, it's the first time these young guys are going through it and we have our academic advisor with us, they're taking tests, they're doing papers the night before you play a team at 2:30 p.m.," Chambers said. "You know, I think they were overwhelmed a little bit and once they cleared their head and we got after it at halftime, they came out and played really good basketball."
With exams out of the way, Chambers noted that the focus in practice would return to habit forming, getting back to a foundation of team toughness, keying in on defense and rebounding.
"We could be really good, now, if we can put two halves together," Chambers said.
The Nittany Lions have struggled at times to sustain momentum in a cohesive showing, most recently entering the locker room down 42-22 to the Panthers at the half before battling within five with less than two minutes to play.
For Chambers, the ability to compete for the entirety of both halves is exactly what he's looking for from his Nittany Lions through the last two nonconference games, but he'll need to see progress in defending and rebounding too.
"If you play hard, it will clean up some of your weaknesses and then if you defend and rebound, that means you can get out and score some easy baskets," Chambers said. "Sometimes it can become a grind-out game and I never wanted this team to be grinding out anything, I want to get up and down the court and move the ball as quickly up the floor as possible but you can't do that if you don't defend and rebound and play hard."
At 6-5 on the year heading in to Saturday's Holiday Festival against St. John's at Madison Square Garden, Chambers noted that he hasn't seen a bit of bad morale despite some early growing pains.
"Morale is good," Chambers said." If the morale wasn't good, you don't come back and compete and cut it to nearly four with two minutes to go with the chance to get a good stop with the shot clock going down. Morale is good but we can't keep doing that to ourselves. It's been a common theme with this group and again, they're young, they don't realize that they have to play hard for every possession that they are on the court."
Penn State and St. John's will tipoff at 11 a.m. Sunday in the opening game of the Holiday Festival, with Rutgers and Fordham meeting in the later game. The Nittany Lion matchup with broadcast live on FS1.
Chambers on Strength of Schedule
Penn State has certainly experienced the grind of a challenging nonconference slate, which opened fast and furious with no shortage of tough opponents both at home and on the road. That's exactly what Chambers had in mind when piecing together the schedule that will ultimately prepare his young Nittany Lions for a different kind of grind come December 27, when the Nittany Lions open the Big Ten conference slate against Northwestern at home in the Bryce Jordan Center.
"For us, our strength of schedule right now is 43," Chambers said. "I think we were 9-1 or 10-1 a couple of years ago and our strength of schedule was like 180 or something. So this is legit, this is real deal stuff. I learned my lesson a couple of years ago that if we're going for wins we're not going to be prepared for the Big Ten."
A Quick Look at St. John's
The Red Storm enters the matchup at 5-6 on the year, having most recently dropped a close 74-73 decision against LIU Brooklyn to put an end to a three-game winning streak. Making their 50th appearance in the Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden, St. John's has posted wins in each of its last six games in the event.
Chambers was quick to point out that he was keenly aware every member of the team on the floor is capable of connecting on a 3-pointer. St. John's is averaging nearly 10.5 triples per game, led by Shamorie Ponds, who has 35 on the year shooting nearly 45 percent from behind the arc. Averaging 17.4 points per game, Ponds is the seventh-highest scoring freshman nationally.
St. John's Kassoum Yakwe and Tariq Owens are among the nation's best shot blockers, pacing the Red Storm to a total of 82 blocks on the year which ranks second nationally and fourth with 7.5 blocks per game. Yakwe leads the team with 33 blocks on the year while Owens is second with 30.
In a matchup that features two of the youngest teams in the nation, Penn State and St. John's will meet for just the third time in program history and the first since the 2013 Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn.