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Penn State Basketball: Crucial Seven Day Stretch Awaits Nittany Lions As They Open Big Ten Play

by on December 30, 2014 3:00 PM

Penn State basketball is better off now than it was when head coach Patrick Chambers came to town.

This much is undeniable.

How much better though? That still remains to be seen.

There are quantifiable improvements already. The culture around the program is a positive one. Players are buying into a system that is based on the principle that effort, defense, and rebounding will win you a basketball game. There is branding, there are promotions, there are characteristics of a Penn State basketball program visible to those who pay attention.

On the court the players themselves are of a higher quality when the arrive on campus and grow during their time here. Roles are defined and executed. It's basketball played at a higher level.

These kinds of things you can see, and they help build a feeling that you really can change a decades long tradition of being an afterthought in the nation's best conference.

But no amount of branding and positive vibes can win the game for you.

And that's the cold truth that Penn State faces in a critical seven day stretch to open the Big Ten slate. Penn State is better and will continue to get better. But even a program record 12 non-conference wins won't be much more than a footnote in a media guide if the Nittany Lions struggle in conference play.

Penn State opens the Big Ten schedule on Wednesday at Wisconsin in an arena where the Badgers lose so infrequently that those losses are practically urban legend. It's a tough way for the Nittany Lions to transition into conference play but it's a game that will be a solid reminder of how much it takes to win in the Big Ten.

From there though the road is more favorable. Penn State will travel to Rutgers for a Saturday contest against an up and down Scarlet Knight team. Then the Nittany Lions will come back home to host a struggling but talented Michigan squad for the conference home opener.

So the path to a 2-1 start is there. There is a chance to open the season with wins instead of a long and seemingly endless dance with losing. Win early and the Nittany Lions can let their stellar non-conference performance help their resume come March.

Basketball stat guru Ken Pomeroy favors Penn State in half of its opening eight conference games. That mark would put Penn State at 16-5 with a lot of the schedule left to play. In what is essentially a race to 20-to-22 wins the possibility of opening conference play at a very realistic 4-4 is a big positive for a program that won six confeence games last season.

If the Nittany Lions do win, it will come from Chambers just letting his deepest and perhaps most talented team just play the game. It's a delicate balance between coaching and enjoying the depth and talent now found on his roster. It's an asset Penn State has rarely had -- a team with depth, talent and confidence all aligned at the same time during the same season. 

"I think we had a successful non-conference," said Chambers. "I have to fight human nature and sometimes we over-coach. I just need to stick with what has been successful for us this year and not over-coach and let them play basketball. And then have the same approach, the same mature approach that we've had. If we can do that and control what we can control, we'll like the outcome.

"I still believe there is a better team within this team."

For seasoned Penn State basketball fans there will always be a mandatory feeling of trepidation when coaches and media talk about Penn State's chances to "finally turn the corner" as Big Ten play approaches.

But for the first time in a while Penn State basketball has backed up its own hype. Led by one of the best guards in the nation in DJ Newbill with a cast of players who contribute from the bench and on the floor there are options. And there have been wins.

As a result Chambers can focus on offense to back up the defense. He can focus on letting the game flow through a team that has been on the same page more often than not. It hasn't been perfect, but it has justified the perception that Penn State basketball doesn't have to stay the same forever.

The next seven days won't define the season, but if things go well, fans could be reaching for their pom-poms instead of their heartburn medication.

In many ways, the fact that Penn State fans are even talking about the possibility of the Nittany Lions going dancing this March is one of the biggest wins of this still early season.

"Season number two is upon us, and now we have to get ready to go," Chambers said.

But conversations only last so long. Fortunately for fans, this particular group of Nittany Lions seem well-equipped to turn words into action.

And it all starts Wednesday.

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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