In the preseason, there was a train of thought that suggested Penn State would benefit from the NCAA's new emphasis on tighter officiating. With slashing guards Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill leading the way, the Nittany Lions figured to be able to capitalize on looser defenses and live at the free throw line against aggressive opponents.
But in dropping a 90-80 decision to Bucknell at the Jordan Center Wednesday, Penn State saw the other side of the proverbial coin. With the referees calling it close, the Lions were lost defensively.
The Bison (1-1) made 60.9 percent of their shots from the floor and an unthinkable 66.7 percent of their 3-pointers (10 of 15) in cruising to the victory.
They got open shots, they hit open shots, PSU guard D.J. Newbill said. That was the game.
The Lions evened out their record at 1-1. But the way they lost this one was troubling to third-year coach Pat Chambers. While he initially said Penn State ran into a buzzsaw and Bucknell was making contested shots, he later allowed, the bottom line is they made a ton of shots. There's no denying it.
The Bison also did a much better job of directly capitalizing on the whistle-happy refs, who called 47 fouls on the night. The game was called closely both ways, but Bucknell hit 24 of 31 free throws while the Lions managed to make only 15 of 23. So the undersized Bison got to the line more often. And once there, they converted at a higher rate.
You're going to run into these nights, with how it is being officiated, Chambers said. The NCAA is getting what they wanted.
The thing is, the officials were fair about it. They called 24 fouls on PSU and 23 on Bucknell.
It's not the refs' fault, Chambers admitted. We have to adjust.
As you might expect, officiating came into play at the defining moment of this game. Bucknell weathered an early Penn State offensive onslaught and by the beginning of the second half was dictating the pace of the action. The Bison led 57-55 when Lion standout guard Tim Frazier picked up his fourth foul on a charge with 12:04 left in the game.
Two minutes later, with the score tied 57-57, Bucknell went on a 12-0 run that started and ended with wide-open 3-pointers by guard Cameron Ayers. The lead was 71-63 with 8:09 remaining and the Bison were an amazing 10 of 12 from the arc.
We have to go back to the drawing board, said Frazier, who was shuffled in and out of the lineup the rest of the way as Chambers tried to prevent him from picking up his fifth foul. We should have gotten out on shooters. It was in the scouting report.
Bucknell would not hit another trey the rest of the way, but it would not have to. In fact, the Bison went on a scoring drought that ate up 5:06 of the clock, and the Lions could not stop tripping over themselves.
They had four straight empty possessions that included forward Ross Travis missing the front end of a one-and-one, back-to-back turnovers by Frazier, and two missed free throws by guard Geno Thorpe.
We finally got some stops, Chambers said. Then we missed some bunnies. Then we turned it over. Then we missed free throws.
Penn State ended up with five empty possessions during Bucknell's dry spell, the only score coming on a Travis put-back. So when Bison guard Steven Kaspar (25 points) finally broke free for a layup at the 5:03 mark, the lead was right back at eight, 73-65.
The Lions never got closer than five (75-70) the rest of the way, as Bucknell took care of the ball and took care of business at the free throw line. The Bison looked nothing like a team that lost three 1,000-point scorers from last season's NCAA tournament squad.
Of course, great shooting can hide a lot of warts.
We haven't arrived yet, said high-strung sixth-year coach Dave Paulson between sips of Mountain Dew during his postgame press conference. I haven't seen that on a consistent basis.
Chambers, meanwhile, can only hope he doesn't see what he saw from his team Wednesday night on any sort of a consistent basis. The Lions had not surrendered 90 or more points since Indiana beat them 94-63 in the 2007 Big Ten Tournament.
So while scoring 80 points was a good sign. And while having four players reach double figures -- Newbill had 18, Travis and fellow forward Brandon Taylor had 17 each (both career highs), and Frazier had 13 -- was a good sign. None of that will matter if the Lions continue to struggle defensively.
Any time Penn State basketball scores 80 points, we should win the game, Chambers said.
Penn State had won 12 straight in the series before this loss.
Newbill had 10 points at the 11:17 mark of the first half. He did not score again until the 2:13 mark of the game.
The Lions got only 15 points from the rest of their roster, and sophomore center Donovan Jack struggled with only four points and two rebounds.
The Bison outrebounded PSU 28-25. Penn State had one offensive rebound in the first half and eight in the game.
Bucknell opened the season with a 72-68 loss at Stanford, so the team clearly has some talent.
Next up for Penn State is a trip to the Palestra in Philadelphia to take on Penn Saturday. The game tips at 2 p.m. and will not be televised.