Video courtesy Sam Hellman, ScarletReport.com
Sooner or later, playing down to opponents was bound to bite Penn State. It happened Saturday night, when the Nittany Lions were out-hustled and out-muscled against Big Ten newcomer (and presumed laggard) Rutgers at the RAC in Piscataway, N.J.
The result was a 50-46 defeat (to a team that opened conference play with an ugly home loss to Northwestern), dropping PSU to 12-3 overall and 0-2 in the league.
And just two games into the Big Ten season, a Penn State team whose dozen non-conference wins were the most in school history (12) has already dug itself a hole in terms of earning the program's first NCAA bid under fourth-year coach Pat Chambers.
We got out-hustled, they made the winning plays, Chambers said. And we take pride in making winning plays.
Penn State struggled shooting the ball all night. But that was not the real issue, at least not when the game was on the line. After battling back from 14 down in the second half, the Lions trailed 45-44 when guard John Johnson made one of two free throws with 2:17 left.
They needed a hold and got a Rutgers miss, first by Bishop Daniels. But RU's Greg Lewis grabbed the offensive rebound. Then Junior Etou missed a shot, and Kadeem Jack snared the O-board. Jack scored on a drive to the bucket to boost the lead to 47-44 with 1:31 showing.
It was an and-one chance, and he missed the free throw. But that hardly mattered. The way it was shooting, PSU was finished.
The flurry was indicative of how much more aggressive the Scarlet Knights were. So, too, were the 13 offensive rebounds they had in the game. Though the O-boards only led to 12 second-chance points, that was twice as many as PSU managed (off eight rebounds of its own misses).
They wanted it more, Chambers said. They made the winning plays down the stretch. Those offensive rebounds are killers. They were absolute killers.
And in an ugly affair where both teams' awful shooting from the field, 3-point line and free-throw line canceled each other out, it made a huge difference. Even more troubling for PSU is the fact that RU entered the game as the worst rebounding team in the Big Ten (-1.6 per game), yet held an impressive 44-36 edge in this game.
Even more troubling than that was the fact that the Lions missed 37 shots on the evening, yet only managed to track down eight of them.
It was easy enough to explain away State's first Big Ten loss of the season. After all, it was at No. 4 Wisconsin, a team many view as one of the few with a chance to knock off No. 1 Kentucky come tournament time. But this was much different.
In a preseason poll of Big Ten beat writers, Rutgers was the UNANIMOUS choice to finish last in the new 14-team rendition of the conference. Any reasonable prediction of PSU making the NCAA Tournament included a season sweep of the Scarlet Knights (who visit the BJC Jan. 24).
Now, PSU is looking up at what is supposed to be the worst team in the Big Ten.
PSU senior guard D.J. Newbill, the Big Ten's leading scorer, was off his game. After pouring in 29 at Wisconsin, he missed 10 of his first 11 shots Saturday. He finished 4-of-17 from the floor, 1-of-6 from the arc and 5-of-9 from the stripe.
Yet he still led the Lions with 14 points. Forward Brandon Taylor was the only other PSU player in doubles with 10, but he made only 2-of-9 treys.
Penn State's primary forwards and centers are officially an issue. After being a non-factor against the Badgers, they were equally ineffective against the lowly Knights (9-6, 1-1).
Taylor was 3-of-11 from the floor and had no offensive rebounds. Ross Travis, who was relegated to coming off the bench (in favor of guard Geno Thorpe), had only five boards (one offensive) and missed his only shot. He also failed to handle an alley-oop pass from Newbill.
Starting center Jordan Dickerson was 0-of-1 from the field and had only three rebounds (through he was robbed of a follow dunk by a bad goaltending call). And backup center Donovan Jack was 1-of-3 from the floor with four boards.
So that quartet combined for 12 points on 4-of-16 shooting on a night when Newbill was struggling. And they had a total of four offensive boards.
In the meantime, two RU power players -- Kadeem Jack and Lewis -- combined for 18 points, 18 rebounds and nine offensive rebounds.
Penn State's major network TV appearances are few and far between. Saturday's game, on ESPN2, was the first of the year on ESPN or The Deuce.
Unfortunately -- or fortunately, if you didn't want to see the Lions' awful start -- the telecast was significantly delayed after the No. 3 Virginia at Miami game leading into it went into double-overtime.
PSU-RU was pushed to online ESPN3 until the 3:06 mark of the first half.
BACK TO THE RAC
It was back to the RAC for Penn State Saturday, as the Nittany Lions took on their former Atlantic-10 rival for the first time since the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten earlier this year.
Struggling at the Louis Brown Athletic Center is nothing new for the Nits.
Prior to this pratfall, PSU was 5-9 all-time in the building, including a 4-9 mark in the pre-A-10 and then A-10. The Lions lost five of their last six at the RAC in the conference, including a 70-66 defeat in the A-10 championship game in 1989.
Penn State faces Michigan in the conference home-opener at the Jordan Center Tuesday at 7 p.m., in a game that can be seen on BTN. The Wolverines are a disappointing 8-6 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten after dropping five of their last seven, including a 64-51 defeat at Purdue Saturday.
That's the good news for the Lions. The bad news is they are 1-7 in their last eight games vs. Michigan (and have lost 9 of the last 11 and 20 of the last 24 in the series).
ON (THE) SCHEDULE
Penn State's spring semester classes do not begin until Jan. 12, but the Lions caught a bit of a break in that Michigan is the only B1G opponent visiting during semester break (when very few students are expected to attend). There are no home games slated for PSU during spring break (March 8-14), either.