Transforming the face of a losing basketball program is not something that typically occurs overnight.
Perhaps the best portrayal of whether this type of transformation is possible, though, is the attitude of the program’s members on a day-to-day basis.
Penn State has certainly had its fair share of struggles during its 8-17 season — including a 13-game losing streak in Big Ten play — but a recent spark in the Nittany Lions’ play could have led players to feel a sense of accomplishment.
The Lions suffered an unexpectedly close 79-71 loss at then-No. 4 Michigan on Sunday and lost a highly contested two-point loss to Iowa the game before. However, both coach Patrick Chambers and players agreed close losses should never be accepted as subtle victories.
“We have to keep getting better,” Chambers said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “I know what you want me to say, ‘Yeah, that’s great. We hung in with the No. 4 team in the country.’ I’m not saying that, because that’s what’s been said here for the last 20 years. I’m tired of losing.”
Chambers accepted the coaching job for a Lions’ squad in the spring of 2011 that had gotten past the second round of the NCAA tournament just once in the past 50 years.
After a 12-20 record in the coach’s first season, Penn State showed promise early this season but has struggled mightily overall after star point guard Tim Frazier suffered a season-ending injury in November.
The grueling Big Ten schedule has taken its toll on the undermanned Lions, but their two most recent games certainly showed signs of improvement. This was especially the case in the Michigan game when the Lions shot an impressive 44 percent from the field, which helped them lead by as many as eight points in the first half.
Still, Chambers said he refuses to accept a close loss simply as a positive sign for this team, although many from the outside may view it as such.
“[Why is losing] enough when it’s so close…almost?” Chambers said. “ ‘Well, you didn’t get it this year, but better luck next year.’ We have to move on from those phrases and sayings.”
The second-year coach isn’t alone in holding this stance, as his players echoed the need for a win in order to be satisfied.
Leading-scorer and floor marshal D.J. Newbill said the team is playing its best basketball of the season, but that has never been enough in itself for members of the team to hang their hat on, even before coming to Penn State.
“We’re all winners,” Newbill said. “We all came from backgrounds of winning. All of these guys had great high school careers, so we want the same thing for this level. There are no moral victories, like coach said. We’re not taking, ‘Oh, we almost did it. We were that close,’ or anything. We got to get it done.”
Chambers said the team’s struggles haven’t been due to a lack of effort, stressing that the winless stretch is more a product of the Lions not making as many “winning plays” as their opponents.
And this isn’t to say his players haven’t been improving recently, as forward Ross Travis said he believes a winning formula is very close to coming within their grasp.
“I guess what you get out of that is obviously we’re working hard and each game we’re realizing that we’re getting better,” Travis explained. “It’s only a matter of time before we beat one of these teams and get our ultimate goal, which is a win.”
Until that comes, however, both Chambers and his players said they realize they will have to settle for praise from their peers that is merely relative. They said fans have tended to point out the positives when reaching out to them during this stretch.
Chambers said he receives countless emails congratulating the team’s effort even after losses and joked that this “bothers” him, since this perception of losing has almost come to be accepted by portions of the team’s fan base.
“It’s very nice. Please, keep sending the emails,” Chambers said. “I’m not saying don’t send them. I’m just saying, that’s the perception and that’s where we are. And I’m trying to change that. And what better way to change that than with a win.”
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