Penn State closed out the non-conference portion of its schedule with a 69-49 blowout of Dartmouth at the Jordan Center Monday afternoon, improving to 12-1 after winning for the 10th time in as many outings.
But the key question afterward had nothing to do with stomping the overmatched Big Green, even though such easy victories have been few for PSU. Rather, folks wanted to know how well the non-con prepared the Nittany Lions for Big Ten play, which begins on New Year's Eve
..and against a sixth-ranked Wisconsin outfit that appears to be significantly better than anyone State has seen in sprinting out to its best start since opening the 1995-96 campaign at 13-0.
Penn State has yet to play a ranked opponent this year, let alone beat one. But the Lions were sitting at No. 35 in Monday's ESPN RPI mock-up, with wins over top-100 programs George Washington (39) and USC (96), and a double-overtime loss to Charlotte (53). State has seven wins over top-200 programs.
I thought it was a great non-conference, fourth-year coach Pat Chambers said. I know many people might not think that, but I thought it gave us a variety of styles of play that are gonna prepare us for the Big Ten. We played on the road, we played (at) neutral sites. We played against really good big men, we played against really good guards, we played against really good individual players. And we played against really good coaches.
So when you do that and come out the way we did at 12-1, we're in a really good place. We can still get a lot better, though, which is really, really scary to me -- how good we can really be when we're all dialed in and focused.
PSU has not lost since falling to Charlotte in the Charleston Classic Nov. 20. But blowouts like Monday's over the Big Green have been the exception rather than the rule.
Senior D.J. Newbill, who is leading the Big Ten in scoring, said the lone loss on the Lions' ledger so far was a learning experience and let them know how good they could be, especially in close games.
Since then, six of their victories have been by six points or fewer.
I think for the most part we did a good job non-conference, said Newbill, who led the Lions with 17 against Dartmouth. This team really grew. I think we corrected some of our flaws and things we weren't good at game by game. But you can't really know where you're at until we get into the Big Ten Conference.
Asked what those flaws were, Newbill said, Defending, rebounding, playing together, trusting the offense. Coach made a lot of changes. I think he got better with the rotations.
It was all clicking against the Big Green.
The Lions were up 11-9 at the second media timeout of the first half before unleashing a 16-0 run. It was the product of unselfish offense (five different Lions scored, including an impressive dunk by forward Donovon Jack off a pass from rookie Payton Banks) and an aggressive defense that forced Dartmouth into six consecutive missed shots and three turnovers.
Lacking in size, speed and talent, the Big Green were doomed. They made only 7 of 24 shots from the field and missed all nine of their 3-point attempts in the first 20 minutes. Penn State, meanwhile, hit on 15 of 26 shots from the field and 4 of 10 triples.
With time running out before the half, Newbill snaked his way through the Dartmouth defense and threw down a tomahawk dunk over guard Cameron Smith to make it 41-16 at the break.
For a team whose average margin of victory had been less than six points (72.2-66.7), it was a welcome change. Chambers' biggest concern at the half was keeping his squad focused with the big lead.
I just wanted to see us play hard as long as we could, he said. I thought everybody who got some minutes competed and tried. That's all I was looking for.
Even with PSU going 13 men deep, Dartmouth never got closer than 18 in the second half. The only drama in the final minute was whether the Lion shock troops could push the team past the 70-point mark, which would have meant free hamburgers for everyone with a ticket.
But State simply dribbled out the last 29 seconds, as Chambers explained, We're not going to show up any coach, any program.
Besides, he had already gotten 31 points from his bench, including a dozen from guard Geno Thorpe and 10 more from guard John Johnson. Starting forward Brandon Taylor also had 10 to go along with eight rebounds.
In all, 10 different Lions scored and eight logged at least one assist. Chambers was quick to point out the importance of depth -- which had been so lacking earlier in his time at Penn State that some of the current end-of-the-bench walk-ons were seeing minutes in critical situations -- in conference play.
The attention will go to D.J. Newbill on New Year's Eve (at Wisconsin) and it won't relent, he explained.
For once, there is some attention on Penn State heading into conference play, too.
It's definitely a different feel and it's definitely a different approach, Chambers said. Once you were the hunter, now you're gonna be the hunted, because everyone knows you had a good non-conference, everybody understands where you are. It's exciting to be in this position for the first time in four years, and we look forward to the challenge. And we can get a lot better, which is a great thing.
We're extremely confident, Newbill added. We feel like if we stick to Penn State basketball -- defending and rebounding -- that we can play with any team in the country. So yes, our confidence level is at an all-time high right now. We want to keep it going.