Penn State coach Pat Chambers made a resolution earlier this year, and he's doing his best to stick to it. It entails using less profanity while on the bench.
How did it hold up over the weekend, when his Nittany Lions found themselves in three extremely tight games (one double overtime loss and two wins) at the Charleston (S.C.) Classic?
I did wonderful, actually, Chambers said with a smile Monday. You would have been really impressed.
Penn State (4-1) began the tournament Thursday with a 106-97 two OT loss to Charlotte, before beating Cornell 72-71 at the buzzer and then Southern Cal 63-61. Yet even when the tension was high late in those games, television cameras showed Chambers being a cool customer during timeouts.
He gives you confidence, said rookie guard Shep Garner, whose heady end-of-game steal and dish for a layup to D.J. Newbill won the Cornell game. He always says the game isn't over, whether we're winning or losing.
Added forward Donovon Jack, who had a late stick-back and block vs. USC: I think he's trying to be more positive, rather than snapping at us. Just like everyone else, he's learning each year what he can do to improve himself.
Chambers said the decision to tone down his sideline demeanor stemmed from reflection on Penn State's difficult 2013-14 season, which marked his third year in the program. Any hope of making the NCAA Tournament was pretty much snuffed out when the Lions found themselves in five games decided by five points or less through mid-January and dropped them all.
The last three of those losses were in a six-game slide to start Big Ten play. Another was in an 81-79 OT loss to Princeton at Rec Hall in mid-December that deflated the program for more than a month.
You know what, I think I was part of the problem, Chambers said. I really do. I'm an intense guy. I want to be intense in practice. But I want to be part of the solution in games.
You need to be under control, he added. You need to show some poise. And (then) I think your team shows poise, as well.
Things actually began to turn around toward the end of last season. Following a 65-64 loss at Purdue, the Lions beat Nebraska at home (58-54) and then stunned No. 23 Ohio State on the road (71-70 in OT), both in close games. PSU ended the year 5-8 in games decided by five or less.
This season, the Lions are already 2-0 in such games. They came from 17 down against Charlotte to tie it late in regulation on a John Johnson triple (before tiring and losing by nine in the extra sessions). The Garner-to-Newbill miracle saved the Cornell contest. And they played the foul game nearly perfectly in topping USC.
Every huddle was positive, Chambers said. I never looked in guys' eyes and saw worry or fear of losing. I didn't see it. And they didn't see it from me. I was calm and under control. I said this is what we're gonna do, we worked on this last week, we can do it here, let's make sure we execute. And we executed.
The best example was against Cornell. The Big Red took a 71-67 lead with 14 seconds left, and the game appeared to be over. But then Johnson hit a 3-pointer with four seconds left to make it 71-70, and the Lions called timeout.
“You know what, I think I was part of the problem. I really do. I’m an intense guy. I want to be intense in practice. But I want to be part of the solution in games.”
Penn State pressed on the inbound. Garner stole the pass as the final seconds began to click away.
Any kid in America would have pulled up for a 35-foot 3, Chambers said. But he didn't. He kicked the ball ahead to D.J. Newbill, our best player and he wins the game for us.
I think that has to do with the calmness in the huddles and being solution-driven and not being part of the problem, the coach added.
It also helps that this is generally a veteran team. Chambers admitted that in previous years at PSU, there were times he had to be vocal to get young players to compete and stay in games. But when things began to go wrong last season, with Newbill and senior guard Tim Frazier leading the way, he watched a lot of film, re-living those close games and trying to figure out what I could have done better.
He realized the plays being drawn up were fine.
I don't know if it was the X's and O's, he explained. I think it can be approach sometimes. It could be the message sometimes; your delivery sometimes.
None of which means his resolution is completely safe. Newbill said Chambers is mostly positive during games, so one mistake does not lead to more. But
Now practice, that's a different story, Newbill said.
And Chambers acknowledges that there may be times when he has to push a few buttons during a game, resolution or no resolution.
Every game is different, he said. So you may see me go buck wild. I'm not gonna say I'm never gonna do it. I mean, I had some good halftimes this weekend.
But as far as the media timeouts, you want to be as poised as you can, he added.
The Nittany Lions take on Akron (3-1) at the BJC Tuesday in a game that will likely tip at around 8 p.m. The Zips were also in the Charleston Classic, where they clobbered USC (66-46) before losing to eventual champ Miami (79-51) and beating South Carolina (68-63).
Penn State-Akron can be seen on ESPN3 online.
The game is part of a doubleheader with the Lady Lions, who face St. Bonaventure at 5:30 p.m.