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January 17, 2014

Column: On the hump

The game is called Roller Bowler.

A contestant pushes a bowling ball along a track, a pronounced hump separating the ball from its winning valley, and ultimately, his or her prize.

The ball must simply come to a stop in the valley beyond the hump. Of course, on the far side of the valley, another incline forces the ball back toward the original hump and, in all likelihood, an ever-frustrated contestant.

Sure, winning the game is a possibility, and its lure creates an addictive environment in which the hump always seems conquerable with just the right amount of practice and patience. Yet, an hour at the stand inevitably produces more curses and frowns than contestants walking away with life-sized stuffed animals.

Listening to Patrick Chambers Friday morning on his weekly teleconference, the parallels were inescapable.

His Nittany Lions - losers of five straight to open the Big Ten schedule after an outstanding nonconference run - are undeniably, tantalizingly close. And he, the most optimistic man in Happy Valley, just wants one more push.

"I said this the other day, we're on the hump. Just keep putting us on the hump," Chambers said. "I want to be on the hump because eventually, you're going to get over that hump. That's been my drive and that's been my push, but we have to do the little things that are going to get us over it."

No doubt, his Nittany Lions have had a Roller Bowler type of season.

Armed with a fifth-year senior point guard, one of the top returning scorers in the conference and a plethora of experienced accoutrements, Penn State entered the season with the expectation that it would at least be competitive against some of the toughest competition in the country. For as frustrating as their start to the Big Ten schedule has been, the Nittany Lions have done exactly that.

In three of five games against formidable Big Ten foes, Penn State has held a halftime lead. In fact, of the Nittany Lions' nine losses this season, six have featured surrendered first half leads. Making matters even more frustrating, in losses at Michigan and Illinois, the Nittany Lions trailed by as few as two and seven points, respectively, well into the second half.

Citing the struggles of once unbeaten Ohio State - losers of three straight - on Friday morning, Chambers made clear that slumps can happen at even the best programs and, with 13 games remaining in the conference schedule, he and his Nittany Lions are far from packing it in.

"We're close, we're right there, now we just need to believe in what we do, trust in what we do. We've tweaked a few things because of our personnel to make them feel better on the court. We've simplified a few things to make it a little bit easier for them so they're not thinking as much out there on the floor," he said. "I just want them to go play and the results will be the results, but just go out and play. We need more. I think we play in spurts. Our 'spurtability' is great but when we hit one of those rough patches, man is it rough. They're the patches we've gotta get away from."

Granted, a tougher Big Ten slate was expected to bring a drop off in numbers both offensively and defensively, but maybe none have been as dramatic as Penn State's from the nonconference portion of the schedule to now.

Averaging just 65.2 points per game against Big Ten opponents, the Nittany Lions' scoring average has dipped a full 16 points per game, sending the squad from the conference's fourth-best scoring offense all the way down to No. 10 through five B1G games. Though the Nittany Lions are actually faring slightly better in points surrendered (76.2 non-conference vs. 73.2 B1G), their inability to produce points against Big Ten opponents has sent the team's scoring margin from +8.0 all the way down to -11.0.

Team field goal percentage against non-conference opponents finished at 47.7 percent. Against Big Ten opponents? The Nittany Lions are hitting just 39.6 percent of their shots. Three-pointers have dropped from 35.6 percent to a rate of just 29.7 percent. Even free throws have fallen from 75.6 down to 69.6 percent against in-conference foes.

Using everything from seeing a team movie ("Lone Survivor") to any and every other motivational tactic available, Chambers and the Penn State coaching staff have encouraged their players to not be shy offensively.

"Guys have to continue to shoot open shots. I know some guys are struggling from the outside right now, but they've gotta keep shooting. I tell them, 'Let it fly!' I'd rather have a shot at the basket than a turnover or an empty possession," Chambers said. "This is where our youth and inexperience is hurting us, because when you have a veteran-led team, you're able to bounce back and say, 'OK, we got it. We've been here before. We know what it is.'

"Again, it's me helping them and guiding them and trying to get them out of this hole. That's what we're doing. We've done some great things to motivate them, to push them, to drive them… I think we're about to see some really positive results. I really do. I believe it."

Whether or not Chambers' expectations come to fruition remains to be seen, but there's little question where he stands.

An insatiable competitor, staring down the hump yet again, Chambers is ready to give it another push.

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Penn State (9-9 overall; 0-5 Big Ten) returns to action Saturday evening in West Lafayette, Ind., to take on Purdue (12-5, 2-2). The game will be broadcast on ESPNU at 7 p.m.



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