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February 3, 2014

Analysis: Newbill honor a sign of things to come?

The Big Ten won't acknowledge it, but earning a spot on the conference's Player of the Week honor requires a crucial ingredient:

Winning.

For as solidly as some Nittany Lions have performed in recent seasons - ahem, 2011-12 first-team All-Big Ten Tim Frazier - the program's inability to string together wins prevented its stars to receive any type of weekly recognition from the conference.

In fact, winning a combined six Big Ten games the previous two seasons, the last Nittany Lion to earn conference player of the week came when program's all-time scoring leader, Talor Battle, grabbed the honor the week of Jan. 31, 2011.

Until Monday morning, anyway.

The Nittany Lions, winners of three-straight following Sunday afternoon's 79-68 victory against Purdue, saw leading scorer D.J. Newbill take home a Big Ten Co-Player of the Week nod. Officially awarded for his 22.0 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game in wins against Ohio State and Purdue, Newbill has led the Nittany Lions with an outstanding 19.7 points per game since being held scoreless against Minnesota on Jan. 8.

At 12-10 on the season and 11th in the Big Ten, the Nittany Lions are far from being relevant nationally or even within the conference at this point, but Newbill's nod on Monday sets up a finish to the 2013-14 season that is far more compelling than it'd been even two weeks ago.

Amidst a Big Ten that has failed to produce programs that have separated themselves, at 3-6 in conference, Penn State is now just one game back in the standings of a middle pack of four programs at 4-6 against conference competition. Facing No. 7-ranked Michigan State in East Lansing on Thursday night (9 p.m., ESPN2) and No. 15-ranked Iowa at the Bryce Jordan Center on Feb. 15, the Nittany Lions have just two match ups against opponents with winning in-conference records of their remaining nine games.

Juxtaposed against the team that hopped on the bus in West Lafayette, Ind., two weeks ago, 65-64 losers to Purdue and 0-6 in the Big Ten, the contrast in confidence after Sunday's win was remarkable.

"That Purdue game was devastating, I gotta tell you. I give these kids a lot of credit for staying the course, because it could have gotten really ugly. It could have been a perfect storm. And they just kept plugging away," Chambers said. "We stayed positive and we looked at our mistakes and looked at what we needed to do a better job in."

The mantra that stats don't lie isn't accurate, but the case of Penn State's recent success, can be somewhat instructive.

Out-rebounded as a team in the previous six games, 237-189, the outsized Nittany Lions have a slim 109-108 rebounding margin in their past three wins. Throw in Newbill's efforts, plus the crucial contribution of 15 points per game from Brandon Taylor, and lower turnover numbers, and the Nittany Lions' goals from the beginning of the season are starting to take shape as the stretch run of the Big Ten schedule takes hold.

"Our goal at the beginning of the year was to be the best team we could be at the end of the year. It's coming down. It's the start of February, so we've been together a lot of months practicing," Frazier said. "We've been through ups and downs and I think we're a very cohesive team right now.

"We've been through a lot. A lot of losses at the end of games and wins at the end of games, I think it's up in the air. I think that was good for us. We're going to continue to get better and I think we've learned how to finish out in close games."

Dropping 5 of 10 losses by three-or-fewer points, two of the Nittany Lions' past three wins have been by four-or-fewer points.

Whether the tangible success of wins can continue or not remains to be seen, but as Chambers has asserted throughout both losses and wins, competitive situations in nearly every game provides opportunities to win games that, as far as recent history is concerned, hadn't existed until now.

Said Chambers, "They believe in themselves and they have faith in one another and they just want to go out there and compete and get better.

"If that is our mantra, compete and get better, you're going to put yourself in a great situation to win a lot of games."



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