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Penn State Hoops Remains Relaxed As It Ascends In The Big Ten

The ninth-ranked Penn State men’s basketball team isn’t just on a winning streak — it’s on a winning spree.

In the 33 days since their last loss at Minnesota, the Nittany Lions reeled off a tear that is starting to feel like it may never end. While the Big Ten continues to prove why it’s the best conference in college basketball night in and night out, Penn State doesn’t seem to mind the rigorous slate.

Slow starts against Indiana and Northwestern were quickly answered by solid second half performances. Revenge games from prior defeats against Minnesota and Ohio State were avenged with considerable ease. Road trips to blue blood programs like Purdue and Michigan State barely caused the Nittany Lions to even break a sweat.

During this eight-game winning streak, Penn State hasn’t just been defeating its opponents — the players are doing it with smiles on their faces. Head coach Pat Chambers says that the culture his leaders built has been key to the team’s relaxed demeanor as the program’s standing and expectations continue to increase.

“I think our leaders kind of get where we are and how important staying present and in the moment really is,” Chambers said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “We’re trying to create a culture: one that’s with confidence, but also one that says ‘We’re going to have a good time, we’re going to have fun doing this.'”

The leaders have all played their collective parts during this past month. From Lamar Stevens knocking down clutch free throws to seal games, to Mike Watkins adjusting to his role off the bench, while John Harrar is taking his play to a whole new level, and even Jamari Wheeler stepping up to add efficient scoring to his already outstanding defensive reputation.

“Whether you guys know this or not, I tell them ‘Go out and have fun now,'” Chambers said. “You put the work in. Lamar, you’ve been here four years, Mike, you’ve been here five. Johnny and Jamari, you’re juniors, you’ve been here forever. You’ve put the work in, you know the schemes, you know what we’re doing. Go out and have fun competing and doing this together.”

Stevens in particular has become a more consistent heartbeat behind a group that is glowing with confidence. The senior scored 169 points during the unbeaten run, with a shooting split of 48 % from the field (60-125), 38.5 % from three-point range (10-26), and 75.4 % from the free throw line (43-57). The scoring averages out to a little more than 20 points per game, and includes four performances in which he poured in 23 or more points.

Despite how great those numbers are, all of the intangible traits that Stevens provides are even more influential to the team than him slamming down an emphatic dunk or draining a turnaround jumper. Chambers mentioned that Stevens even took charge of a huddle during a rough patch of play early in the Northwestern game, noting that the senior called on his teammates to play their brand of basketball.

“Lamar really took the huddle and got after them,” Chambers said. “He just said, ‘We’re not playing Penn State Basketball, we’re not defending, we’re not rebounding, and we’re not talking.’ I just reinforced one or two things but that was really Lamar. He knew why I called the timeout. He grabbed them before I even got into the huddle.”

“That’s a great sign of leadership and what these guys want to do, and they’re connected,” Chambers added. “For Lamar to be able to teach at that moment and really motivate his teammates, it’s egoless.”

The leadership deserves a lot of credit for Penn State’s ‘one day at a time’ focus and for helping the team stay loose and relaxed as national pundits begin to call them legit contenders. However, it’s also a lot easier to have fun during games when the team is able to get out to fast starts the way Penn State has. Just take a look at some of the numbers from this eight-game stretch:

  • Ohio State: led last 37:10 of the game, led by 15 at halftime, won by 14.
  • @ Michigan: led last 29:18 of the game, led by nine at halftime, won by nine
  • Indiana: led last 19:13 of the game, tied at halftime, won by 15
  • @ Nebraska: led last 31:53 of the game, led by five at halftime, won by 12
  • @ Michigan State: four lead changes in final 12 minutes, led by six at halftime, won by five
  • Minnesota: led all but 33 seconds of the game, led by 14 at halftime, won by six
  • @ Purdue: led last 36:13 of the game, led by 12 at halftime, won by 12
  • Northwestern: led last 32:57 of the game, led by 14 at halftime, won by 16

The average margin of victory is 11.1 points per game, and the average lead at halftime is an average of 9.4 points per game. But, the craziest stat is Penn State taking the lead and holding it for good for the last 28 minutes and 45 seconds of every game on average during this streak. The Nittany Lions are essentially taking the lead around the second media timeout of the game, and not relinquishing it for the rest of the contest outside of the thrilling back-and-forth win over the Spartans in East Lansing.

With an identity built around playing staunch defense, Penn State merely needs to withstand one or two runs in the second half to win comfortably. The Nittany Lions make sure to play hard each possession, even if they’ve built a sizable lead, in order to prevent blown leads or late-game collapses.

“It’s something that we’ve discussed every day that we’re together,” Chambers said about handling the mounting pressure as the team continues to win. “It’s something that we’ve learned from the Iowa situation, maybe that got to us a little bit.”

That ‘Iowa situation’ is in reference to Penn State’s emotional win over the Hawkeyes in a jam-packed Palestra at the beginning of January. After the buzz about the team really started to pick up, the Nittany Lions proceeded to lose three straight games before launching into their current streak. The blown leads late in close games were an issue in past years for Chambers, but it’s a part of the game that he says he’s worked on tirelessly for the last year, dating back to the team’s improved play at the end of last season after an 0-10 start in conference play.

“We can’t overreact, I can’t overreact, and I’ve worked really hard on that all year long,” Chambers said on Monday. “If we play the ‘what-if’ game, then you’re going to start to feel pressure, then you’re going to start to feel stressed, then you’re going to start to feel overwhelmed.”

Right now, ‘overwhelmed’ is the last term people would use to describe one of the hottest teams in the nation. The Nittany Lions are back in action tonight against Illinois, as they try to extend their streak to nine Big Ten wins in a row. The game tips off at 6:30 p.m. at the BJC, and you can watch it on FS1.

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About the Author

Mitch Stewart

Mitch is a senior majoring in broadcast journalism from Roanoke, Virginia. In addition to his role with Onward State, Mitch talks about all the #sprots on Penn State's CommRadio. To contact Mitch, feel free to send him an e-mail at [email protected], and if you really don't value your social media accounts, follow him as he yells on Twitter about Penn State basketball @mitchystew.

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