After he was named to the Big Ten's first team as a junior, Lamar Stevens was given a challenge from Penn State coach Pat Chambers.
Stevens, having averaged 19.9 points and 7.7 rebounds, was told he needed to embrace what Chambers called the “Mamba Mentality.” Recalling former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, Chambers wanted to see Stevens attack — and win — every rep of every practice drill. It was one way that Chambers said he hoped to get even more from one of his most important players, with an eye on getting the Nittany Lions into the NCAA Tournament.
That mentality has helped Penn State to its best start in five years. As the Nittany Lions bring Stevens and frontcourt mate Mike Watkins to Value City Arena for a game Saturday against Ohio State, they will bring length and physicality unlike anything the Buckeyes have seen this season.
Before his junior season started, Ohio State center Kaleb Wesson said it's a challenge he has long been preparing for and an attitude he has embraced.
“I want to win every drill,” Wesson said at Big Ten media day. “Every rep I'm in, I want to be the best person in that rep. I feel like things like that are things I was instilled with at a young age. That's something that you can't teach. That's something that you've either got it or you don't.”
It will be on full display. Ohio State is ranked second nationally in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency, but Penn State isn't far behind at No. 12. Six of Penn State's wins have been by at least 20 points, and it led by 21 points before a second-half meltdown in a two-point loss to Mississippi on Nov. 27.
The overall challenge presented by the Nittany Lions helped prevent Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann from dwelling too long on Wednesday's 26-point win at No. 7 North Carolina. High on the list of concerns was Stevens, who had 20 points in the lone game against the Buckeyes last season.
“He's tremendous,” Holtmann said of Stevens. “I know he flirted with the NBA, but when you talk about him, I think everybody in the league, other coaches, talk about the mismatch issue he is and has been dating back to his freshman year.”
Stevens will get a steady dose of junior Kyle Young and Wesson in the lane, both of whom have had their issues scoring over defenders with length. Wesson has struggled relative to his track record: Ohio State's leading scorer is shooting a career-low 46.3 percent from two-point range, down from 54.9 percent a season ago. Young is shooting 68.3 percent on two-point attempts.
“Just gotta put the ball in the rim,” Wesson said. “That's what it comes down to; finishing through contact. There's more attention on me as far as the defense goes, having bodies around me all the time while I'm shooting the ball.”
Against the Tar Heels, the Buckeyes saw more frontcourt length and size than most of their nonconference opponents have presented. They did better from inside the arc than in similar games, shooting 53.5 percent on two-point attempts compared with 48.3 percent against Kent State and a season-low 45.5 percent against Cincinnati.
This figures to be a tougher challenge.