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Feb. 20, 2013
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - After going toe-to-toe with No. 4 Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sunday afternoon, it would have been easy for head coach Patrick Chambers and the Nittany Lion basketball team to sit back, relax and settle for how well they competed against one of the nation's elite teams.
But that's not the way Penn State Basketball will continue to grow.
"I always say that we are close," Chambers said. "But I can never accept losing. And I will never accept losing. We lost. But we are getting better. As individuals and as a team, we are getting better. We are getting production from some guys who are finally stepping up, which is great. And they have to continue to do that during this final stretch here."
Results aside, Penn State took big steps forward on the offensive end of the floor in the last two games, scoring 70 or more points in two-straight Big Ten games for the first time since 2006. During that span, the Nittany Lions have shot 44 percent from the floor and 40 percent from beyond the arc, both well above the season averages (38.6 percent from the field and 27.7 percent from three).
A number of factors have played into the offensive surge, namely the scoring output from sophomore point guard D.J. Newbill (18.5 ppg), junior guard Jermaine Marshall (15.5 ppg) and senior forward Sasa Borovnjak (15.5 ppg). The numbers speak for themselves, but the execution level on the offensive end of the floor has been more efficient than it was during previous games.
"I think we are moving the ball a lot better," senior guard Nick Colella said. "We are moving it side to side. We are getting it below the free throw line. We are getting to our spots. And as a team, we are really getting the ball inside-out. And we are getting a lot more open shots."
High-level execution starts with good spacing on the offensive end of the floor. Newbill said that Penn State's spacing and a few new offensive sets have both made life better for the primary ball handler running the offense.
"The good spacing makes my job much easier," Newbill said. "Coach always talks about making sure that you are being the best teammate you can be, and spacing on the court is part of that to help get everyone involved."
Penn State's recent performances are much more than what is meeting the eye, though. It isn't just a byproduct of better execution.
"Guys are in here earning it," Chambers said. "They come into the gym. They don't wait for me to come in here. They are shooting. They are bringing each other to the gym. They are getting in the weight room for extra lifts. That's why you are seeing a difference."
On the defensive end of the floor, Chambers wants to see more consistency from start to finish. Yes, the offensive output has improved, but it takes a complete performance every possession to win in a league with the depth of the Big Ten.
"Defensively, we are having some breakdowns at crucial times," Chambers said. "We are having some tough turnovers to start halves again. That absolutely kills you because they lead to run-outs. Then, there are timely rebounds that we don't get. We have done a pretty good job rebounding the ball for the most part, but it is the winning plays; we have to start having winning plays."
Chambers said the Lions opened the Big Ten season in the right direction, giving Wisconsin all it could handle in the final minute of a close road loss at the Kohl Center. Penn State then played Indiana tough in the Bryce Jordan Center. Then, the Lions were up and down in Big Ten play until last week's pair of strong performances against Iowa and fourth-ranked Michigan.
"They want to win. They care," Chambers said. "Nobody likes losing, and that's why I think we have a good group of guys. Some guys might mail it in at this point. Some guys might say, `oh we lost, no big deal.' But I don't think our kids are making any excuses. They come out everyday to try to get better and work. The fact that there are still tears in that locker room after losses is impressive."
Barrowing a line from Chambers, the Nittany Lions are close to getting over the hump. With continued execution on offense the way it has been during the past two games and a little more consistency defensively, Penn State will continue to put itself in a position to make the aforementioned winning plays.
"We are going into the games with the mentality that we have nothing to lose," Newbill said. "We are just playing basketball. We just need to bring confidence into every night. That's what we have to do."
Chambers has said from day one that he wants to the see the Nittany Lions play their best basketball of the season at the end of the year, and if the last two games are an indicator, they are beginning to do that. However, he isn't going to let the Lions accept anything less than winning.
"I feel like we are getting better, but I will not let these guys accept moral victories," Chambers said.
The Nittany Lions travel to Illinois on Thursday night for their only meeting of the season against the Illini, who have won four-straight games. Tip is set for 8:15 p.m. on BTN.
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