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February 19, 2014

No time to rest for Nittany Lions

Penn State men's basketball travels to Nebraska Wednesday to start a stretch of five games in the next 17 days that will close out the 2013-14 Big Ten regular season.

First, they had to rest, though.

Coming off an 82-70 loss Sunday afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center against Iowa, the Nittany Lions (13-13 overall, 4-9 Big Ten) were given the day off in preparation for Thursday night's tilt against upstart Nebraska (14-10, 6-6).

"Watching the game over and over as much as I did, they looked a little fatigued after that week," head coach Patrick Chambers said Tuesday. "So we gave them the day off Sunday. Yesterday was more of a cerebral day than a highly competitive day. We'll get back to work today and I feel like giving them those two days - an entire day off from me on Sunday and a short, hard workout with shooting and non-competition - can only help their minds and their bodies."

With an opportunity to build upon what has already amounted to the most wins in Chambers' three-year tenure at Penn State, the Nittany Lions weren't necessarily all on board with the idea of days off, though.

Citing a stretch run that could be the difference between a disappointing finish to a year that once held promise and an uplifting end to what had been an ugly 0-6 start to the Big Ten schedule, fifth-year senior point guard Tim Frazier said that the Nittany Lions have continued to fight toward the goal they'd identified before the season began.

"Sunday we had the day off, but most of the guys, we're coming down to the end so we kind of just did some shooting. We have to try to stay together," Frazier said. "Obviously, we got five games left and we want to take advantage of being the best team we can be at the end of the year and keep going on with our five games."

Redshirt junior guard D.J. Newbill echoed Frazier's thoughts.

"We had a day off after Iowa, but yesterday we were right back at it," he said. "Coach is doing a good job, being smart about the way we're practicing. Yesterday was just kind of a day to get some shots up, go over our offensive cuts, just to get everybody back up to speed from having the day off. We got a chance to get back to work."

That work, as it pertains to a guaranteed six games remaining - including at least the first round of the Big Ten Tournament in mid March - will include an attempt to finish better than last-place in the conference standings for the first time since the program's NCAA Tournament run during the 2010-11 season.

Presently sitting at 4-9 against conference opponents, the startling news for Chambers and the Nittany Lions are the possibilities that still exist coming down the home stretch.

Trailing the sixth-place Cornhuskers in the standings by just two games, a win on Thursday night (7 p.m., ESPNU) at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, could push the Nittany Lions as high as a tie for eighth-place. In a league that has failed to produce much of an upper echelon this season, routinely seeing upsets and a scrum amongst the nine teams all within four wins of each other, Big Ten Tournament seeding is completely up for grabs.

"This is a competitive league. It's crazy. There's no one team that is just standing out over the pack because that's how good every team is in this conference," said Newbill. "On any given night, you can go out and win a big game or lose a big game. That's what makes this conference so special.

"But as far as the standings, I don't really pay attention to that. I think our coaches might pay more attention to that. I'm just kind of focused on being the best teammate I can be, the best leader I can be for my team, and at the end of the year, the best team we're going to be is all I'm just focused on."

According to Chambers, the single-mindedness of a team attempting to focus on itself instead of its surroundings and circumstances is essentially music to his ears.

Regularly urging his players to ignore Big Ten standings, Chambers has instead pushed for daily focus this season and is hoping to see the same spirit continue as the end of the regular season closes in.

"You can't help it. They're 18 to 22. They're going to look at it," Chambers said. "(D.J.) might be telling the truth because he might not be looking at it. That's just the kind of kid he is. He's just worried about Penn State and Penn State basketball and this team.

"But you just tell them, 'Look, we are where we are. We just gotta keep fighting, keep getting better and be the best team we can be by the end of the year.' You can't look ahead to Nebraska, you can't look ahead to Ohio State. You gotta just focus on today. If I can do that, I've done my job. If they can just focus on getting better today, we'll be a better team come Thursday."



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