STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) Penn State has been mostly competing with itself since coach Patrick Chambers arrived and last season's team was no different. Penn State's 13-game winning streak to open the season turned into a quick slide to a 13th-place finish in the Big Ten.
But Chambers - who was publicly supported by his athletic director after a loss in early February - has reason to hope this year's team will be the one that turns positive energy into winning results.
''We're so close to making those game-winning plays,'' Chambers said. ''But we have to go through those in order to get better and realize that we can win those close games.''
Shep Garner began to emerge as Penn State's go-to offensive player. The sophomore believes his experience will pay off as he's suddenly the player a handful of freshmen will lean on.
But Chambers' main concern is not reverting to a team that relies too heavily on one player as often was the case last season when D.J. Newbill seemed to shouldered the load in almost every game.
''We're going to share the ball a lot more,'' Chambers said. I think if I can draw upon it again, the late-season run that we had, where we had four guys close to double figures and you weren't relying on D.J.'s 20 every night to put you in position to win in the last two minutes of a game. . I think that's going to help everybody.''
HELP UP FRONT
Chambers isn't putting too much on Garner to carry the scoring weight because he believes his frontcourt is ready to share it. Chambers said Penn State had its best offseason conditioning program to date with most of its forwards checking into preseason practice in peak physical shape.
Specifically, all were asked to get between 8 and 12 percent body fat and all did so with the hope to push their minutes. Brandon Taylor led Penn State's forwards with 26.9 minutes per game.
''`Can you play 30 minutes? Can you play effective in that 30 minutes? Are you going to run out of gas?''' Chambers asked. ''They're mentally tougher than they were a year ago.''
Buoying Chambers' optimism are three freshmen who make up his best recruiting class yet.
Guard Josh Reaves and forwards Deividas Zemgulis and Mike Watkins make up the program's first Top 30 recruiting class and all are expected to compete this season. But guaranteeing them playing time immediately was never part of the recruiting pitch.
''They're into our culture, they're listening to our veterans,'' Chambers said. ''It's fun to watch and to see. They have a long way to go, a long way to go, but so far their attitude's been great, their approach has been great and we have to continue that to see minutes.''
Penn State won't leave Pennsylvania until it plays Boston College on Dec. 2. Meanwhile, the Nittany Lions will play nine of their first 11 games in the Keystone State. A game against Drexel at the Palestra on Dec. 19 will be Penn State's final instate game before returning on Jan. 5 to face Minnesota in the Big Ten home opener.
Chambers was signed to a two-year contract extension shortly after last season. It followed supportive public comments from athletic director Sandy Barbour who stood by Chambers after that ugly loss to Maryland in early February.