Penn State Basketball: The Missing Piece To The The Nittany Lions' Chemistry Experiment
"Chemistry ... It's the constant, it's the cycle ... It's solution, dissolution, just over and over and over. It's growth, then decay, then transformation. It is fascinating, really." -Walter White in Breaking Bad.
When it comes to sports, chemistry is the glue that keeps a team together or pulls it apart. Much like nature, chemistry defines the cohesion, structure and properties of all of the independent parts that make up a organism. The chemistry of a team is a bond not unlike those found in the natural world. Relationships, mental strength, physical abilities, all of those things work together to create a team.
But like any chemistry experiment, reactions and change are a part of the process.
For Penn State basketball, the Nittany Lions find themselves needing to balance out their own chemical equation after going 0-4 in conference play. Pat Chambers' third season at the helm has had plenty of talent, and the team has a fine emotional relationship, but one thing is starting to leak out of the team's chemical equation.
In non conference play, Penn State won on the road, at home and at neutral sites. The Nittany Lions scored 70 or more points without much effort. They won overtime games, they won tight games, they won easily, and they lost heart breakers. By the time Penn State entered Big Ten play there was nothing the Nittany Lions hadn't seen or done.
But no matter how much positive energy flows through the halls of the Bryce Jordan Center, there is little doubt that Big Ten play brings an ominous cloud with it. Penn State's current team hasn't felt the emotional highs of conference wins on a regular basis. Each subsequent loss stings just as hard as the first.
To Chambers' credit, his team has never stopped trying in his three years. There have been plenty chances to do so, but they have yet to fold. Nobody would blame them if they did, but they haven't.
Even so, the pressure to win is a very real feeling. Even if it's unspoken, it's unlikely that the team is unaware of its own potential. So as each loss rolls in, two in the final minute of regulation, the pressure mounts. Each shot is second guessed. Each player thinks a little too hard, each play becomes more and more important. There is little room for the fun that is playing sports, there is just a feeling is being just fingertips away from grasping your goal.
And Chambers wants that feeling to stop.
"I don't think it's time to hit the panic button yet," Chambers said. "We're two possessions away, we're a good second half away from being a really good team. We're so close. I hate that term, but we really are. We're a stop, we're rebound, we're two made free throws, we're two non-silly fouls away.
"We're not making the plays we need to make at those possessions at those important times.
"I can feel it, I can touch it. I'm probably more mad at myself more than anyone else because we're so close and I'm trying to figure out how do I get us there. How do I get us that one more inch? When you're out there and watch us play we're not over matched, we're competing and now we've got to get it done. It's that transition to get us over the hill. Our time is going to come."
Over his three years at Penn State, "Philly Swagger" has been something of an inside joke for those who cover the team. A phrase Chambers has used to describe the kind of gritty and fearless player he wants to recruit. If there was a measurable way to gauge a team's Philly Swagger, Penn State's would be lower than it has been all season. it's not so much that the Nittany Lions' don't believe in themselves as much as it is a fear of failure.
"It's not so much about who is across from them," Chambers said. "It's about themselves. They just need to keep shooting. They worked hard in the offseason. Don't worry about missing. We're all worried about fouling, they fear losing, they don't want this to be another horrific start like it has been the past few years.
"You understand where these kids are coming from but it's my job to try and change their mentality. It's my job to remind them to play to win, not to play not to lose. I think once we find that and have success it's all going to come together."
For Chambers, he looks to former Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds as the fearless shooter that he wants to see out of his squad.
"Scottie Reynolds would shoot an air-ball," Chambers said on Monday. "Then he'd shoot a floater air-ball. Then he'd shoot a three air-ball. But he was never bothered by it. He'd just go back and play defense. It's like being a relief pitcher, you throw the home run, just pick up the ball and throw the next strike. That's what it has got to be."
"Teams that I've really enjoyed always play like that. Butler played like that, that's why they went to the Final Four. It wasn't like they were lighting it up, it wasn't like their shooting percentages was great. But they never changed their demeanor. They're going to rebound and defend and play hard and they don't care that they just missed a shot or that they had a turnover or that they're looking silly right now."
"What I'm trying to tell them is, relax. Play to win, enjoy the ride and get better every day. If you do that you will find success."
Penn State will have another chance to put it all together and enjoy the ride on Tuesday night as the Nittany Lions take on Michigan in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines are coming off of a one-point victory over Nebraska. Despite a national championship game appearance last season, the Wolverines are a much more beatable team this season.
But like any game, it will take a full 40 minutes to get the job done. If the Nittany Lions can balance out their chemistry experiment with a little more swagger and confidence, it could go a long way.