Penn State coach Patrick Chambers knows very well what he and his players are up against as he stares into the face of Big Ten play.
The elite conference boasts five of the top 11 teams in the country, and the 12 Big Ten teams combined to finish non-conference play with a dominant 123-31 record.
Despite entering conference play with an 8-4 record, the Nittany Lions will look to improve upon their last-placed finish in the Big Ten last year. However, Chambers said this year’s team, which begins conference play against Wisconsin (9-4) Thursday at 8:30 p.m. in Madison, is hoping to “change [the] perception” of the program within the context of the Big Ten.
“[The Big Ten] is a great league and I love being in this league,” Chambers said on a conference call Wednesday. “But we have the mentality that any given night you can go out, and as long as you play hard and compete at a high level, we can beat anybody.”
At times during non-conference play, this level of play has been evident, especially of late. The Lions head into Big Ten play coming off of a four-game winning streak, having scored 70-plus points in each of these contests. They hadn't achieved that feat so once in their first eight games.
There have also been times when Penn State has put forth underwhelming efforts — for example, a double-digit loss to Boston College and a four-point overtime win against the now 5-8 Delaware State. Furthermore, the Lions rank last in the Big Ten in both field-goal percentage and point differential.
However, Chambers’ squad has gone 6-2 since the loss of all-Big Ten point guard Tim Frazier — who will miss the remainder of the season after rupturing his Achilles tendon on Nov. 18 — and the team has gained momentum in the past few weeks.
The Lions’ coach said, even without Frazier, the active roster has a chance to make noise in conference play due to a renewed sense of selflessness.
“This isn’t the same old Penn State with their approach, with their mentality,” Chambers said. “This is a group that’s playing with confidence. This is a group that doesn’t fear failure and they don’t really care how they look. They’re playing for each other.”
Leading the team’s offensive efforts have been guards D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall, who average 15.8 and 14.6 points per game, respectively. The team has also experienced more collective outputs, with players such as forwards Brandon Taylor and Ross Travis often chipping in — each average more than seven points per game.
Chambers stressed the importance of depth in conference play, but said he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the more inexperienced players struggle in their first Big Ten game on the road Thursday.
“You’re going to see all our weaknesses exposed, because in a possession game, that’s what happens,” Chambers said. “And it’s going to be a possession game… In the Big Ten, they play hard. Everybody is talented. Everybody can make shots. It’s just, who’s going to play hardest, the longest.”
Chambers announces captains
Chambers officially named three team captains Wednesday — Newbill, Marshall, and fellow guard Nick Colella. The coach said Newbill was previously named a captain, but following Frazier’s injury, he decided to wait before choosing the other team leaders.
“They had to earn it. They have to bring it everyday,” Chambers said of Marshall and Colella. “It’s not a one-day, two-day, three-day [responsibility]. It’s got to be a consistent 30 days. And those two guys for the last month since Tim has gone down, they have stepped up vocally in the locker room, on the floor, in the training room, and in the weight room.”