UNIVERSITY PARK - Pat Chambers has been part basketball coach, part pitchman since taking over at Penn State in the spring of 2011. Now entering his second season at the helm of the Nittany Lions, he makes no apologies for going to extremes to sell the program to the school's football-crazy fan base.
"I've tried almost everything you can possibly think of," Chambers said during PSU Basketball Media Day at the Jordan Center Monday. "I've dressed up like [football player] Mike Mauti. I've handed out Big Macs. I've taught classes. I've done pep rallies. I've done almost anything that anybody's asked me to do, and then some. So I hope [fans] come out."
But coming off a 12-20 season in which Penn State finished last in the Big Ten, Chambers realizes there is one more important step to energizing the hoop fan base in Happy Valley.
Photo for the Mirror by Mark Brennan
Penn State basketball coach Patrick Chambers watches practice on Monday.
"Now we have to win," he explained. "We've got to win games. It's like 'Field of Dreams:' you build it, they'll come; you win, they'll come. So hopefully we'll win some games."
In fairness to Chambers, the fact that Penn State actually won a dozen games overall (and four in the Big Ten) last season was something of a minor miracle considering the situation he inherited. After leading the Lions to their only NCAA Tournament appearance in his eight years at the helm, Ed DeChellis bailed for Navy more than month after the 2010-11season. He left behind a roster that included only one returning starter.
Chambers made that one starter - guard Tim Frazier - into a star last season. The junior won first time All-Big Ten notice after seeing his scoring average rise from 6.1 to 19.6 points, which was good for second in the league. Frazier finished first in the conference in assists and second in steals.
"He's a freak athlete with his speed," Chambers said. "Now he's added a 3-point shot. He's been really shooting the three well in practice. He's almost un-guardable. Last year, there were five [defenders] in the paint and he was almost un-guardable. Now you add a three to that?"
Frazier is the keystone around which the 2012-13 Nittany Lions have been built. But, unlike last season, he now has some serious backcourt help in the form of Philadelphia native and Southern Mississippi transfer D.J. Newbill. At 6-foot-4, 205 pounds, Newbill brings a combination of skill and toughness - Chambers called it "Philadelphia swagger" - that was sorely needed to complement Frazier.
While Newbill was sitting out last season under NCAA transfer rules, he went head to head with Frazier every day in practice. And early in the preseason, Chambers purposely kept them on separate teams in most practices so they could push one another.
But with the season-opener against St. Francis closing in quickly (Friday night at the BJC), he has had the duo working together much more often in recent weeks.
"There's a sense of chemistry being built," Chambers said. "It's not exactly where it needs to be. It's in the infancy stages. It will only get better as they play together. But they can get each other shots. Tim has to get used to, 'I don't have to have the ball for 40 minutes,' which is going to be a luxury for him. That's a lot of stress, that's a lot of pressure for a point guard.
"What we did to Tim last year, [they said for] 40 minutes, you have the ball, you have to make every decision and it better be right or we're in big trouble," Chambers added. "Now you've got another guy who can dribble the ball, who can make plays for others, who can make plays for Tim."
Newbill said it has been an adjustment playing with Frazier all the time, as opposed to against him.
"When we first started, it was different," he said. "I think maybe the hardest adjustment was keeping up with him on fast breaks. He may be the fastest player I've ever played with. But we're getting better in practice every day."
As far as the supporting cast, Chambers lauded versatile sophomore forward Ross Travis as "one of the most valuable players on the team next to Tim Frazier. ... He is going to be really big for us. I think he's going to have a breakout year."
Another import cog is redshirt junior Jermaine Marshall, who Frazier and Newbill praised as the best 3-point shooter on the team. The Lions were horrible from the arc last season (31 percent) and need at least one person to emerge as a consistent long-range threat.
Marshall has been slowed by a hamstring injury of late, prompting Chambers to say, "We need a healthy Jermaine Marshall."
Inside, Chambers said he is counting on redshirt junior Sasa Borovnjak and redshirt sophomore Jon Graham to be his "dynamic duo." He'd like them to combine for a double-double every game and focus on being physical with the opposing big men.
Both players worked on getting more athletic in the off-season.
"[They've] got to come and play hard every day," Chambers said. "They're going to be challenged. They'll be going up against first-round [NBA Draft] picks and Lottery picks [in the Big Ten]."
Asked about specific goals for the season and whether they included a trip to NCAAs, Chambers side-stepped the questions and reiterated his familiar, "We need to be the best team we can be by the end of the year. ... Does that mean more wins? I hope so."