When addressing that question, it is tempting to check the box score. In the 61-57 defeat, the Nittany Lions went 3 of 23 from the arc and 16 of 26 from the stripe. Season leading scorer Tim Frazier took an 0-of-12 collar and fellow starting guard Matt Glover was 0 for 6.
Seems simple enough, right?
Well, not really.
Because those stats are merely a reflection of the real problems with this team. Even at 6-4, State has a clear lack of poise and leadership. And it is difficult to imagine the Lions getting much better in either area once the Big Ten grind hits in a couple of weeks.
In defense of new coach Pat Chambers, this is what happens when you lose four starters from a group that advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Knowing poise and leadership are not taught quickly, Chambers set his early focus on something he can control -- the energy level of the program.
By and large, that's been a positive most of the year, and has been enough to carry Penn State past bad opponents. Even against the undersized Leopards (4-5), the Lions played hard, with 20 offensive rebounds, an overall edge of 47-26 off the boards, six steals and probably a dozen deflections.
This despite playing three and even four guards most of the night.
But when poise and leadership were needed, neither was delivered
The first glaring indication of that occurred early in the second half. Trailing 37-32, Glover split the Lafayette zone and found an open lane to the bucket. He missed an uncontested layup. In the game, PSU missed 11 shots from eight feet or closer.
Speaking of the zone, the Lions never could solve it, even though it didn't seem very complicated. The Leopards played mostly 2-3 with some subtle variations. They didn't allow anyone to screen for Frazier, instead switching the intended screen target to guarding him.
It was a dud of a game for Frazier (three points), to be sure. But Nittany Lions not named Frazier attempted 18 triples of their own and made only three. Even though his game was off, he was still trying to set up others (he finished with nine assists).
Only two players stepped up their scoring while Frazier struggled. And yet they both had their own issues when it came to poise.
Rookie forward Ross Travis was 5 of 5 from the floor for a dozen points and eight rebounds. The free-throw line was a different story for Travis. He made only 1 of 7 attempts. In the first half, he settled into a pattern of missing one foul shot long then nearly air-balling the next.
Wing Jermaine Marshall continued to emerge as a consistent scoring threat. He slashed hard again and again, finishing with 20 points after making 9 of 11 free throws.
Marshall also had nine rebounds. But on his last one, he had the second-biggest brain cramp of the game.
With Penn State trailing 58-56, Leopard Seth Hinrichs missed a 3-pointer, and Marshall grabbed the rebound with about 25 seconds left. He didn't clear it with power. Lafayette's Nick Petkovich poked the ball away for a steal and Marshall fouled him with 22 seconds to go.
Petkovich made one of two to put the lead at 59-56.
Frazier then tried to force the action but lost the ball while driving -- another instance of poise lacking. But the Lions were given a gift when the Leopards called timeout even though they had none (that would have been the biggest brain cramp).
With 10 seconds to go and down three, Frazier bricked the first free throw. He made the second. The Leopards made a couple of foul shots at the other end to go up four and seal the upset.
The only returning starter from last season, Frazier was named a captain this year by default. He has been asked to step up his game significantly and, overall, has been up to the task. But doing that AND being a calming influence for everyone else during the intense final moments of a tight game is obviously a work in progress for the junior.
When he made mistakes Wednesday, it showed in poor body language. Everyone in the building noticed it.
Chambers would later say, You can't hang your head if you miss a shot, if you miss a free throw. Can't do it. Everybody's looking at you.
After the game, there was yet another indication of the lack of leadership. No players were made available to the media. It is not clear whether that was Chambers' decision or the choice of the players.
But rest assured the best Nittany Lion leaders of the past quarter century -- and even some of the not-so-great leaders -- made a point of manning up and facing the press after a tough loss. Of the games I've covered in that span -- which have included dozens of gut-wrenching losses -- I can only recall two where PSU players did not come to the media room.
That's not meant as an indictment of Frazier or any of the other players. It's just another example of how far they have to go.
You don't become a head coach at a Big Ten school at 40 without having a good feel for these types of things. So he'll continue to focus on energy.
And trust that poise and leadership develop even as the losses mount.
It's all new to them, he said. We made some mistakes down the stretch. That's just from being in that intense, tight situation. Hopefully we learn from this.
See the box score:.