STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — It's hard to imagine the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team looking past Tuesday night's game against Penn State, even though a marquee matchup with first-place Ohio State awaits the Badgers on Saturday.
The Nittany Lions are 10-12 overall and in last place in the Big Ten Conference with a 2-7 record in league play, but they've beaten Purdue and Illinois at the Bryce Jordan Center this season and would like to make it a trifecta of upsets by adding UW to the list.
Needless to say, Penn State has the Badgers' full attention at the start of a week that will end with No. 19 UW (17-5, 6-3) playing host to the No. 3 Buckeyes (19-3, 7-2) at the Kohl Center.
UW associate head coach Greg Gard said two things stand out about the Nittany Lions in their first season under coach Patrick Chambers. The first is their effort.
"They just scrap, fight, bite, claw — whatever it takes to win, they're trying to do," Gard said. "And I think that's the culture that Pat's trying to get established there is, 'We're going to have play this way for us to be successful.'"
The other thing that makes the Nittany Lions difficult to prepare for is junior guard Tim Frazier, who leads the Big Ten in assists at 6.3 per game.
He's also second in the league in scoring and has accounted for 28.7 percent of Penn State's points, 37.1 percent of its made field goals and 41.4 percent of its made free throws.
"He's one of the most dynamic scorers that we've played and will play all year," said UW assistant coach Lamont Paris, who was in charge of putting together the scouting report on Penn State. "He has a great ability to get to the rim and finish. He's got a lot of different ways to finish: floaters and attacking the glass and the rim and stepbacks and (3-pointers). A lot of it is just predicated on how you're going to guard him. But the ball's in his hands 90 percent of the time."
Frazier has increased his scoring average from 5.0 points as a freshman to 6.3 last season to 17.9 this season. He's also second in the Big Ten with 2.2 steals per game.
"I don't know if there's anybody in the league that made the jump he has with what he's added to his game," Gard said.
Jordan Taylor had four turnovers in a loss to Michigan State on Jan. 3, three in a loss at Michigan five days later and two in the first half of a game against Purdue on Jan. 12.
Since then, UW's senior point guard has put on a clinic on how to take care of the ball.
Taylor hasn't committed a turnover in his last 94 minutes of action and has just one in his last 173 minutes dating to the first half of the Purdue game.
"I think I overpenetrated a few of those times," said Taylor, pointing specifically to instances against Michigan and Purdue. "So I just tried to not really scrutinize, just try to keep those in the back of your head and try to make better decisions."
Gard said Taylor's lower turnover total isn't a reflection of his play alone.
"I think he's gotten some help from his teammates," Gard said of Taylor, who's second in the Big Ten with a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio. "I think some teammates have taken steps forward in their game and become more consistent."
Gard began listing names and ended up naming nearly everybody in UW's regular eight-man rotation.
"Everybody has started playing better," Gard said. "So I think he's gotten some help, so maybe he doesn't feel like he has to do everything all the time. And I think his decision-making has gotten better, too. He maybe overpenetrated and tried to do too much. That usually happens when you try to do too much. You get yourself in a position where you're in trouble."
Chambers, like UW coach Bo Ryan, grew up in the Philadelphia area. Chambers is from Newtown Square, Pa., which is just west of Philadelphia, and played at Philadelphia University under Hall of Fame coach Herb Magee.
Go a little further west from Newtown Square and you'll find Chester, Pa., where Ryan grew up.
"Coach knew him through the Philadelphia connections," Gard said. "His teams play like he is — he's tough-minded; he's scrappy. Maybe it's those Philly guys. They're all wired a little different, whether it's Coach or Pat or Fran (McCaffery) at Iowa. They're all kind of fiery and they're all competitive. And I think their teams resonate that, too. They kind of resonate the personality of the head coach."