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Giger: Bad week, bad signs for PSU basketball

UNIVERSITY PARK — There was a distinct sound of bricks being thrown at the basket as Penn State started Saturday’s game 0-for-12, and the end of the disappointing loss to Wisconsin brought about the sound of people starting to jump off the Nittany Lion bandwagon.

Maybe that’s unfair — to start getting serious doubts about a solid team that’s done a lot of good things this season.

This is still a team that has a very good shot at making the NCAA Tournament.

But this is Penn State basketball. It’s hard for casual fans to get interested in the team in the first place because of so many poor starts over the years. And even when things start out well for PSU, there’s always a sinking feeling that the inevitable letdown is looming at any point.

It kind of feels like we’re on the verge of that right now.

So it will be up to the Lions to change the narrative in a hurry and get back to being a feel-good story.

“We’re hitting a little speedbump here, a little bump in the road for us,” Lions coach Patrick Chambers said after the 58-49 loss to the Badgers at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Penn State played a strong first half at Rutgers on Tuesday, then fell apart. They were lazy, slow and got hammered by the Scarlet Knights 44-28 in the second half of that 72-61 loss.

The effort was atypical in that game because the Lions usually play hard at all times.

The bigger concern, though, was the return of the lousy half-court offense that has plagued PSU so frequently over the years. Things just bog down, and the Lions settle for bad shots.

Saturday’s game comes along, and the Jordan Center was packed with a great crowd of 10,139 fans eager to see their team continue to climb. To see a good game. To see a big win that would bolster an already strong resume.

Instead, Penn State turned in an awful performance.

The kind of egg-laying performance that just begs for those 10,139 fans to think, “Here we go again.”

The Lions missed their first 12 shots and didn’t score for the first 8 minutes and 36 seconds.

At home.

That’s atrocious.

They were down 10-0 before crawling back into it at 12-9, but really, the damage had been done.

It’s hard to come back from any sizable deficit against Wisconsin, which is extremely well coached, disciplined and efficient. To pull off a comeback against the Badgers takes great efficiency and smart basketball, and Penn State wasn’t up to the task.

“You gotta make shots,” Chambers said.

You also have to take good shots. Too many times in the second half, the Lions were coming down the court and just chucking up deep jumpers early in the shot clock.

That’s bad basketball. The kind of basketball the Badgers want you to play against them, because then they’ll come down on the other end, work the clock, move the ball and get a good shot.

Penn State was ranked No. 20 this week before suffering the two losses. It’s quite a testament to the job Chambers has done that the Lions found their way into the Top 25 for the first time since 1996.

But PSU is certain to drop out of the Top 25 now. The Lions still have a good NET ranking (No. 23 entering play Saturday), which helps the NCAA Tournament cause.

But here’s what hurts the cause: At Minnesota, then Ohio State, then at Michigan.

Those are the next three games, and there’s a chance Penn State could lose all of them to drop to 2-6 in the Big Ten. That’s the worst-case scenario, obviously, and even one win out of the three would be decent.

But it’s not like things get a whole lot easier after that. The Big Ten is a brutally difficult conference, and there are no easy wins.

Just because Penn State has a good non-conference resume and is in good shape for the tourney right now doesn’t guarantee that this team can keep up the strong play the rest of the way.

What Chambers and his team now have to deal with is something that simply hasn’t been around much at Penn State.

Expectations.

The standard is higher. Chambers and the players have worked hard to raise the standard.

But when you raise the standard, you can’t start games 0-for-12 and go scoreless for 8 ¢ minutes in front of 10,000 fans, or else you’re certainly running the risk of people starting to doubt you.

Again.

“Hopefully (the fans) continue to come out,” Chambers said. “We’ve got some great wins under our belt, our resume is very strong.”

OK, so how good will the resume have to be for the Lions? What will it take to make the big dance?

I would say 9-9 in the Big Ten. And you know what, 8-10 actually could be enough, depending on what other bubble teams do in their conferences.

College basketball is as watered down this year as it’s ever been.

Every team has big flaws. Teams that will be on the bubble will have serious flaws and holes on their resumes, and playing in the rough and tumble Big Ten will give Penn State the benefit of the doubt over a lot of teams.

So there’s still a whole lot of hope left. Don’t jump off that bandwagon just yet.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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