Inside the Den: Foul trouble impacting Nittany Lions in multitude of ways
Names on opponents’ jerseys mean little this season in the Big Ten.
Sure, at 4-0, Michigan State is living up to its preseason expectations as one of the best teams in the league. At 0-4, the same could likely be said of Northwestern.
But with 12 other programs currently holding a record anywhere between three wins (Maryland, Rutgers, Illinois) and one win (Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa), the Big Ten simply does not allow for nights off for any of its teams.
Fresh off a 72-61 loss at Rutgers Tuesday evening, Penn State head coach Patrick Chambers can attest to as much.
His No. 20-ranked Nittany Lions, 12-3 for the season with a 2-2 record in conference play that has included a shellacking at Ohio State and wins against Maryland and Iowa before falling to the Scarlet Knights, are joined by five other programs currently sitting at .500. Experiencing the same ups and downs as nearly every other program in the Big Ten, the early writing is on the wall with four-fifths of the league schedule remaining:
“It’s a great lesson for us on the emotional and physical toll that it took on us,” Chambers said, describing the high of the Iowa win at the Palestra in Philadelphia quickly followed by the loss to Rutgers. “You need to be able to bottle that up and put that behind you and be able to compete the next night. I thought we did it for about 20-25 minutes.”
Against a Rutgers team playing without its scoring guard, Geo Baker, that wasn’t enough.
Meeting with the media Thursday afternoon at the Bryce Jordan Center, Chambers credited the Knights for “making all the winning plays” in the second half, be it an 8-3 advantage on the offensive glass, missed open looks for his Nittany Lions and persistent foul trouble.
With Wisconsin up next on the schedule Saturday (2:15 p.m., BTN) back at the BJC, Chambers and the Nittany Lions got back to work Wednesday evening with a film session followed by a spirited practice Thursday. Together, Chambers said he believed they demonstrated a recalibration of effort and intensity.
“I thought we had a great film session. And I thought we had a great practice today. We really competed and got after one another, and I think we needed that, get that edge back, get that chip back, understanding the things that Rutgers did to us to win the game,” Chambers said.
Let’s dig into some of the other news and notes items to emerge from Chambers’ Thursday afternoon press conference, here:
1) At the season’s midpoint, the verdict is in:
Penn State has a problem with committing fouls.
For the year, the Nittany Lions’ 217 total fouls rank a modest No. 211 of 350 teams nationally. But the impact in recent games, sending Lamar Stevens to the bench with trouble in each of the last two outings and landing Rutgers at the free-throw line to build a lead from which Penn State couldn’t recover down the stretch, has been undeniable.
It's also the most fouls committed among all Big Ten teams this season.
Acknowledging the issue, Chambers insisted it wasn’t an overly complicated one to correct.
“Our guys need to do a better job on the perimeter defending the ball one-on-one. It's really that simple,” Chambers said. “Because Mike's picking up a foul because he's coming over to help and he's picking up some cheap ones. So we just gotta do a better job of guarding the basketball. And if we do that, if everybody does their job, I think you prevent that paint touch and that lessens the load of fouls.
“Because I looked at KenPom, we're over 200 in fouling. Somehow we have to play hard without fouling. And it can be done. We've done it. We dropped under 200 for almost two weeks there. And now we're back up. And again, Big Ten play, you're playing on the road. Not using that as an excuse, it is what it is, but we have to do a better job and we have to adjust to the officials. If the officials are calling ticky tacks, we got to know that.”
2) The offshoot to that point is that the Nittany Lions struggled to adjust to the way the referees most recently called the game at Rutgers.
From the jump, Penn State was in foul trouble, posting five team fouls before reaching the first media timeout through the initial four minutes of the game. And as the game wore on, with defensive lifeblood Jamari Wheeler sidelined due to foul trouble alongside Stevens, the Nittany Lions’ defensive intensity reflected the predicament Penn State built itself.
“We gave up some major, major drives in that game. They had a few drivers out there, 22 wasn't making threes, 24 wasn't making threes. Their drivers, 4 and 42 are getting in the paint. Now we're afraid to foul, so now our hands are back and we're just letting guys go right by us,” Chambers said. “So it does really affect the mindset of how you want to compete, how you want to play. But if everybody does their job on the court, you should be able to prevent those blow-bys.”
3) As a result of Penn State’s foul troubles, the impact has extended to other areas as well.
Especially in the face of absences for Stevens or Mike Watkins, two of Penn State’s top three scorers this season, more pressure has landed on the shoulders of younger guards Myreon Jones, Myles Dread and Izaiah Brockington to produce the points being lost in their absences.
“Our sophomores are playing critical, critical minutes, and they're vital to everything we do. So we really need... consistency. M.J., Myles. I mean, M.J. put on a show there for five possessions. But we need that for 40 minutes. Brockington great against Iowa, you gotta be great against Rutgers on both ends of the floor,” Chambers said. “So our sophomore guards, we're asking them to do a heck of a lot, especially when Lamar and Mike are in foul trouble.”
4) One of those sophomore pieces, Dread, has been a critical component to Penn State’s successes this season even in the face of a shooting performance that has not lived up to expectations.
Starting each of the Nittany Lions’ 15 games, Dread is third on the team in assists, has made timely rebounds, and helped ice the win against Iowa at the free-throw line.
Chambers issued a message of encouragement but also cautioned that the peripheral components to his game would need to remain at a high level if the shooting percentages don’t improve.
“He needs to shoot the ball better,” Chambers said. “He's got to keep rebounding… He's going to have to do those things to stay on the floor for us, the good decision-making and playing great defense and rebounding. But I think it's only a matter of time before he gets his legs underneath him and he starts to make some threes.”
To date, Dread has connected on just 30 of his team-high 102 attempts from beyond the arc (29.4 percent).
5) Responding to each of their prior two losses with wins the next game, Chambers expressed optimism that the Nittany Lions would react accordingly in hosting the Badgers Saturday afternoon.
And that confidence, he said, was built on what he’d seen at practice leading into the afternoon press conference.
“Practice today showed me a lot. I thought we had a terrific practice. Our leadership was great. Our volume was great,” Chambers said. “You know they're dialed in when you can hear them. Now I was a little loud today too, but in both ways, positive and negative, or positive and teaching, I'll say. But I think that's when you know they're engaged and ready to respond to some adversity and challenges.
“Look, you gotta take care of your home games in the Big Ten. The road is so brutal. I mean, the RAC was great the other night. I know our fans are going to come out. They came out at the Palestra, they came out at the Cornell game between Christmas and New Year's. If they come out and we have that home-court advantage. It's really gonna help us.”
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