Before Penn State coach Patrick Chambers was even able to blink his eyes at the start of the Nittany Lions' game at Iowa on Saturday, his team had already dug itself a big hole. An Aaron White three-pointer with 13:55 to play in the first half staked the Hawkeyes to an early 16-2 lead in the game, and they cruised from there, winning 77-64 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City.
The Lions outscored their opponents 45-41 in the second half, which helped make the final tally respectable, but the damage had been done when Penn State's efforts early on at both ends failed to keep the team even within striking distance.
Two days later, Chambers was still befuddled by the poor start during his weekly press conference at the Bryce Jordan Center.
"I don't understand how you can come out flat, or not ready to play, or no energy or all these buzzwords we all use," Chambers said, putting air quotes around the word "flat" with his fingers. "You're on the road, you've got a great opportunity to play against a good Big Ten team and they jump us."
The Lions have started in similar holes several times this season. On Nov. 19 against Kentucky, the Wildcats raced out to a 22-9 lead to start the game before winning 85-47. And on Nov. 26 against St. Joseph's in Philadelphia, Penn State let the Hawks race out to a 22-0 lead before closing the gap to 65-47 by the final buzzer.
Chambers said the walk-through at the team's hotel ahead of the matchup against Iowa was "spirited." He also thought the team had two good practices leading up to the game and that it was "mind-blowing" to see Penn State start as poorly as it did with that in mind.
Forward Sasa Borovnjak thinks team members have to improve their mental preparation to avoid more bad starts in the future, and believes his teammates need to find the right mindsets individually.
"[Preparation] is different from player to player," Brojovnjak said. "You just need to put it in your mind and go with the right mindset. Every game is a hard game. There's no easy games."
The loss dropped the Lions to 0-8 in true road games this season. The only game they've won away from the BJC was a 53-49 triumph against South Florida on Nov. 20 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn. as part of the Basketball Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament. All this after Penn State was 3-9 in true road games last season on their way to the NCAA Tournament.
At this point, Chambers is hoping his players aren't overthinking it when they leave Happy Valley.
"Now you start to think 'Is it in our head?' We're on the road, is it in our heads? Is that playing games with us, is that playing tricks on us?" Chambers said. "We need to change out mindset, change our ways...we need to get better, because we can still get a lot better."
The team will be tested on the road again this week when it travels to face No. 12 Michigan State in East Lansing on Wednesday. The Lions have dropped their last two games at the Breslin Center, the most recent a 75-57 loss against the Spartans on Feb. 10, 2011.
In preparation, Chambers said he's been meeting with players one-on-one and spelling out what he expects of them moving forward. He also said he's been producing "pump videos" for players in slumps. The videos include replays of shots individual guys have made through the season, saying its important for players to see themselves making shots.
Ultimately, though, Chambers still thinks there's no better way to get a hot shooting stroke back than to get in the gym and put up shots, pointing to former guard Allan Ray, who he coached at Villanova, as an example of what he's looking for.
"Allan Ray was a gym rat," Chambers said. "Allan Ray, if he missed, he was in the gym that night or the next morning. That's the type of kid we was. He lived and breathed basketball, and I think we need to instill that in these guys."