IOWA CITY -- There's not a whiff of condescension in Fran McCaffery's voice when the Iowa coach discusses Penn State's tenacity.
Yes, Iowa walks into Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday (noon, ESPNU) as a clear favorite over one of the Big Ten's bottom-half programs. But few teams match the Nittany Lions' never-say-die attitude, and McCaffery witnessed that firsthand last year.
The No. 15 Hawkeyes (18-6, 7-4 Big Ten) paced Penn State (13-12, 4-8) by 12 points inside of 10 minutes last year. Iowa led by seven points with 5:25 left and six with less than two minutes remaining. Each time Penn State kept battling. Only a Devyn Marble free throw in the last second held off the Nittany Lions. It was Penn State's 12th Big Ten loss in a string of 14 straight.
But Penn State didn't fold after losing to Iowa. The Nittany Lions beat Michigan -- the NCAA championship runner-up -- by six points two weeks afterward. This year, the Nittany Lions are showing the same resilient traits as the Big Ten race winnows to its final month.
Penn State claimed three consecutive Big Ten victories for the first time since 2009. Included in that run was an 71-70 overtime win at Ohio State. The Nittany Lions trailed by 11 points with 7:45 left before sending it into overtime. D.J. Newbill's pull-up jumper over Aaron Craft with two seconds left in extra time ended an 18-game losing streak to Ohio State.
Wednesday's 66-65 win at Indiana showed even more grit. Halfway through the second half, Penn State trailed by 13. The Hoosiers led 64-53 with 3:19 left. But the Nittany Lions rallied with defense late. Twice in the last 15 seconds Penn State stole inbound passes that led to points. The final steal resulted in a Tim Frazier layup and the win.
"They just don’t quit. They’re going to keep coming," Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. "It happens a lot. You’ll see games where they get down 10, 12 points, and the next thing you know they’re up three. They aren’t going away. They’re the epitome of a team you’ve got to beat. They’re not going to make so many mistakes that you just kind of back into a win against them. You’ve got to beat them."
Iowa's two-point victory last year ended a five-game losing streak at Penn State. That game also displayed Newbill's capabilities. Newbill, a red-shirt junior, scored 26 points and grabbed eight rebounds. When Iowa raced to an early 17-7 advantage, Newbill began a 16-0 Penn State run with a 3-pointer.
Last year Newbill became the primary scorer and point guard when 2012 all-Big Ten guard Tim Frazier suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear. Newbill finished as the league's fourth-leading scorer, and he's elevated his play this season.
Among Big Ten player, Newbill currently ranks fourth with 17.2 points a game. Frazier has returned and ranks ninth in scoring at 16.1 points and leads the league in assists with 6.0.
"They both do everything," McCaffery said. "Either one can bring it down, either one can play with ball screens, either one can come off of screens, either one lead the break. They can guard. They’re different-sized players. I think that’s what makes them so difficult.
"I think last year was good for (Newbill) because when Timmy got hurt, they put the ball in his hands and he had to do so much to carry that team. Now he’s doing a lot of the same things, but he doesn’t have to do it as much because he has a lot more help."
Newbill has added an outside shot that wasn't there a year ago -- save for his three 3-pointers against Iowa. As a sophomore, Newbill made just 20 of 75 3-pointers (26.7 percent). This year, he's knocked down 33 of 94 (35.7 percent).
Marble, who will defend both players at times, has noticed Newbill's perimeter improvements.
"It’s something that probably last year, you would give him," Marble said. "This year, he’s hitting that and also he’s willing to drive the ball and he’s one of the best finishers in the Big Ten getting into the lane."
Based on the relentless nature of Penn State's comebacks combined with the prowess of Newbill and Frazier, forgive McCaffery for not chalking up a trip to State College as automatic.
"They only won two games (last year in the Big Ten), but they beat the team that was in the national championship game and their best player was out for the season," McCaffery said. "They’re 4-8 (now). They easily could have seven wins. Easily could have seven wins and could be sitting next to us."