Pat Chambers has had a tough row to hoe during his time as the head coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions. He took over a program that was coming off an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2011, but it quickly became obvious that the similarities between that squad and his 2011-12 team started and ended with the “Penn State” script that adorned the front of the team’s uniforms.
When former coach Ed DeChellis left Penn State to become the head coach at Navy, many people in the college basketball world were surprised to say the least. However, it now seems like DeChellis knew that the team would struggle moving forward — the 2010-11 team started four seniors, including do-it-all guard Talor Battle — and decided to get out while the getting was good.
No one has ever accused Penn State of being a basketball school, but the Nittany Lions have been a proud bunch under Chambers. He has made sure that his teams give maximum effort in order to make up for the talent gap between his team and other Big Ten Conference squads. That gritty approach allowed Penn State to steal a victory over national runner-up Michigan and nearly led to a win over then-No. 22 Wisconsin last year.
Now, with guard Tim Frazier healthy after missing all but four games a season ago, the Nittany Lions seem like they are close to climbing out of the cellar for the foreseeable future.
Last year’s 8-4 non-conference record was hardly any different than this year’s 9-4 mark, but a closer look shows that the Nittany Lions capitalized on a very weak schedule to mask the effects of Frazier’s injury before conference play began. If you focus on the non-conference losses then and now, you will begin to see why Penn State is on the verge of climbing the ranks in the Big Ten.
Last year Penn State’s four non-conference losses were blowouts; they lost by 17, 25, 12 and 25. This year, the Nittany Lions’ four non-conference losses have been much more closely contested. Penn State’s worst loss so far was a 90-80 setback against the Bucknell Bison. The other losses came by three, nine and two points. Those games suggest that, while Penn State is capable of playing at a high level, the Nittany Lions are going through the growing pains associated with learning how to win consistently. That’s still a major step up from last year, when Penn State often failed to stay within 15 points of the opposition on its way to a 2-16 record in the Big Ten.
It will still be a challenge for this year’s team to win more than a handful of conference games because the Big Ten is ridiculously strong yet again. Losing two players to transfer also hurts, especially when those two (Jermaine Marshall and Jonathan Graham) played in every game a season ago.
Those departures are disappointing, but they also have created an opportunity for three freshmen and three sophomores to play meaningful minutes. Furthermore, getting rid of disgruntled players and replacing them with players that want to be in Happy Valley should improve the team’s chemistry. The Nittany Lions are already sharing more; they are averaging 15 assists per game compared to 10 assists per game a season ago. Perhaps a youth movement is just what the doctor ordered.
It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see the six underclassmen struggle to keep their heads above water for the entire league slate. However, if Penn State can come out the other side of Big Ten play in one piece physically and mentally, there is reason to believe that the Nittany Lions will make their way up the ladder sooner than later. Overall, the future looks promising for Penn State basketball.