Pat Chambers: Building A Team, One Step At A Time
Entering his fourth season at the helm of Penn State’s basketball program, Pat Chambers is facing a career-defining year.
After three full seasons for Chambers to recruit, install a new coaching scheme, and rebuild the team’s culture from the ground up, the grace period that is often awarded to new coaches when they take over a struggling program will come to a close.
Tim Frazier, the last remaining player from the Ed DeChellis era, has graduated and moved on to the NBA’s D-League, and this team is now firmly in the hands of Chambers. What he can accomplish this season with a certified star in senior guard D.J. Newbill, a veteran playmaker in senior forward Ross Travis, a budding talent in sophomore guard Geno Thorpe, and a cast of valuable role players will define the next few years of Penn State basketball as the team looks to gain traction in the nation’s best conference.
Heading into the 2014-15 season, let’s take a look at the budding coaching career of Patrick Chambers in Happy Valley.
Record: 12-20 (4-14 Big Ten)
Notable wins: at Boston College, vs. Iowa, vs. No. 22 Illinois
Notable losses: at Saint Joseph’s, vs. Lafayette, at Duquesne
Postseason: Did not qualify
For Chambers, handling the tough task of building a respectable basketball program at a “football school” was a priority since day one. Introduced as just the 12th head coach in Nittany Lion basketball history on June 6, 2011 by way of Villanova and Boston University, Chambers quickly energized the fan base with his passion and enthusiasm. In his introductory press conference, he spoke of attitude, tradition, and a sense of community that both he and his team would maintain both on and off the court.
“We’re going to recruit kids that are serious about their degrees, that love to play basketball, that will represent Penn State with integrity and will be out in the community and work charities and do whatever we can to help the area,” Chambers said three years ago. “We are going to play up-tempo. We’re going to push the ball. We’re going to get layups. If we don’t get layups, we’re going to shoot threes.”
With an upbeat, infectious personality, he wasted no time spreading his message to Penn State fans. In his first eight days on the job, he traveled 10,500 miles to personally visit with each returning and incoming player and their families. He ordered a pair of golf carts from the university, and began making impromptu trips around campus to hand out t-shirts. Before the home football game against Alabama in 2011, he put on a Penn State football helmet and jersey and hung out with students camping out at Nittanyville. He even went as far as to go behind the counter and serve free Big Macs to students at the downtown McDonald’s in State College.
On the court, the team reflected the coach’s energetic mindset. His practices were high-intensity, fast-paced affairs, and this showed during the games. A more visible effort toward rebounding, hustling, and diving for loose balls was apparent from game one, a 64-47 win over Slippery Rock at Bryce Jordan Center.
While the team raced to a 6-1 record to start the season, the Lions faltered to finish 9-5 in non-conference play, including losses to Saint Joseph’s, Lafayette, and Duquesne. But two tough wins over Boston College and Cornell, as well as a two-point loss in a close battle with Ole Miss, gave fans hope for a strong season.
As grueling a conference as any other in the country, the Big Ten has a tendency to grind teams to dust, chew them up, and spit them out. The conference schedule proved to be a buzzsaw for the young Lions, as they finished 4-14 in conference play, tied for last place in the Big Ten. A 17-point defeat to Indiana in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament ended the season, as the Lions did not qualify for postseason play.
However, Chambers helped guide star point guard Tim Frazier to one of the best seasons in Lion history as the junior guard earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after leading the conference in assists and finishing second in scoring and steals.
Record: 10-21 (2-16 Big Ten)
Notable wins: vs. Providence, vs. No. 4 Michigan, at Northwestern
Notable losses: vs. Akron, at LaSalle
Postseason: Did not qualify
The second year of the Chambers era began with a win over St. Francis at home, followed by an up-and-down performance in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Penn State was defeated 72-55 by eventual NCAA tournament eight seed North Carolina State in the first game, survived 55-52 over Providence in OT in the second, and was beaten soundly in a 25-point loss to Akron in the third.
Entering Big Ten play, the Lions held a respectable 9-4 record against non-conference opponents, including four straight wins over Army, Delaware State, New Hampshire, and Duquesne.
However, much like the first year of the Chambers era, the big, bad Big Ten huffed and puffed and blew the house down. Against a stacked conference, the Lions lost an unbelievable 14-straight games to start the season, with the nadir coming in the form of a 23-point beatdown at the hands of the seventh-ranked Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington.
And then, just as the team was reaching the point of utter collapse and posting a winless conference record, a miracle happened.
Trailing No. 4 Michigan by 10 points midway through the second half, the Nittany Lions outscored the Wolverines 33-12 in the final 10 minutes to stun the Big Ten’s best team, 84-78. Pandemonium ensued after the final buzzer, as students and fans rushed the court to celebrate an improbable victory.
The Lions hit a season-best 10-of-20 from three and shot 53 percent in the second half as the team earned its first conference win of the season over an unlikely opponent. Jermaine Marshall scored 25 points on a career-best six threes and added and six rebounds, sophomore D.J. Newbill posted 17 points and led the Lions with five assists, and sophomore Ross Travis tied his career high with 15 points and had a team-best 12 boards and a career high four steals for his fourth double-double of the season.
The win marked the third time in program history the Nittany Lions defeated a team ranked No. 4 or higher, and Michigan is the highest-ranked opponent Penn State has beaten since knocking off No. 2/3 Michigan State in the 2001 Big Ten Tournament.
“Words cannot express how I feel right now,” Chambers said after the game. “These kids come with a great approach. We were on a 14-game losing streak and they still came with a great approach. They didn’t lose the fight or the fire, and I knew we were going to win one down the line. What a great night to do it on senior night. They will never forget that for as long as they live. They have earned it by going above and beyond.
“That is Penn State basketball,” Chambers added, pointing to the big win as a possible sign of things to come. “Get a good picture of that because that is what it is going to be.”
The Lions were promptly trounced 73-44 by Minnesota the following week, but rebounded with a win over Northwestern. Penn State nearly topped No. 22 Wisconsin at home for a second victory over a ranked opponent, but Traevon Jackson’s buzzer beating three staved off the upset bid.
Penn State matched up with Michigan again in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, but the Wolverines were determined to avenge their loss to the Lions just four weeks earlier and won in convincing fashion, 83-66. The Wolverines would move on to the National Championship Game where they would fall to top-seeded Louisville.
Record: 16-18 (6-12 Big Ten)
Notable wins: vs. St. John’s, vs. No. 24/22 Ohio State (twice)
Notable losses: vs. Bucknell, vs. Princeton
Postseason: College Basketball Invitational — 2nd round loss to Sienna, 54-52
With decorated point guard Tim Frazier entering his final season and D.J. Newbill rounding into form as a capable scorer at the two guard position, Chambers entered year three as head coach with one of the best starting backcourts in the country.
After a setback to Bucknell in the second game of the season, Penn State responded with five straight wins, including an 89-82 OT victory over St. John’s in the semifinals of the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn. Penn State nearly beat Ole Miss in the finals to capture the crown, but the Rebels’ Marshall Henderson and Jarvis Summers both scored 19 points and combined for 11 of Mississippi’s last 12 in the victory.
Penn State couldn’t hold on to a late lead on the road against Pitt the following week, as the Panthers used an 11-3 run to take control en route to a 78-69 win. A heartbreaking loss against Princeton in the Return to Rec handed Penn State its fourth non-conference defeat, and things were starting to appear sour for the Lions as they headed into Big Ten play.
However, the Big Ten opener against No. 5 Michigan State proved that Penn State could hang with the conference’s elite. D.J. Newbill and sophomore Brandon Taylor combined for 35 points, as Newbill tallied 17 points for his 29th consecutive double-digit scoring performance. Penn State took a 47-40 lead into the first half, and the Spartans needed a 10-point run after the break to regain the lead before ultimately pulling away, 79-63.
Still, the loss was an encouraging sign for a young team hoping to find its identity in a tough conference.
“We can be a really good team and compete in this league,” Chambers said after the game. “This has to be a learning experience game, we have to learn a lot from this, because we have a chance, we do, but mentally, we have to get way tougher. They were, they were tougher and they showed it.”
Penn State would drop its next five conference games, but a three-game winning streak over Nebraska, No. 24 Ohio State, and Purdue got the Lions back on track. It was the first streak of back-to-back conference wins under Chambers.
“What these kids have done to turn this around is just kept working, kept digging, kept getting better and they really just bought into what we’re doing with each other,” Chambers said after topping Purdue at home. “And it looks like they are really playing for each other.”
The Lions would go on to drop six of their last nine regular season matchups, including a first-round loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament. But the team found a way to upend No. 22 Ohio State a second time, this time at the BJC on Senior Night. Ross Travis and Geno Thorpe, two players that have developed into capable leaders, combined for 13 points and 11 rebounds. Thorpe showed flashes of brilliance as the team’s budding star, scoring a season-high nine points.
“He made some big time plays,” Chambers said of the freshman Thorpe. “He drives the ball so tough physical, he doesn’t mind the contact. He made a major impact – his steals, his deflections, his quickness, his athleticism, he moved well without the ball, he was definitely a positive out there. The future is bright for him.”
Although the Lions would suffer an ugly 54-52 loss to Sienna in the second round of the CBI, signs were still pointing up for the program. For a program that has failed to reach the Big Dance since 2011, a postseason matchup (albeit a frustrating loss) is a welcome sight.
Year 4 – ???
While rebuilding a program is hard enough as it is, doing so in one of the country’s best conferences is an even bigger chore. Even so, Chambers has stayed the course, quietly putting together a solid recruiting class that will add depth and talent to a roster that desperately needs it.
Shooting guards Isaiah Washington, Devin Foster, and three-star Shep Garner will join the team as freshmen this season after being recruited by Chambers. The coach said the trio of backcourt players are freakish athletes, have high basketball IQs, and are picking things up quickly, but they’re young and prone to turnovers. The speed of the game moving from high school to one of America’s premier conferences is a daunting task for any freshman, but veteran leadership from players like Newbill and Travis make the transition much easier.
“There’s going to be some mistakes. There will be turnovers. That’s OK. We’ll live through them,” Chambers said of the freshman trio at media day. “You hope that the leadership out there, the seniors and juniors, can be a calming effect and give the point guard some clarity and keep them with a clear head and know that I’m not going to rip you out if you turn it over.”
For Chambers, seeing the veteran players start to take over leadership duties is hugely important to the team’s success. Along with team captains D.J. Newbill, Ross Travis, Brandon Taylor, and Kevin Montminy, a leadership council was installed in the off-season. With the goal of empowerment and accountability in mind, each player will be responsible for various tasks related to the program. Taylor is in charge of tidying up the locker room, players’ lounge, and bathroom. Montminy is in charge of keeping the refrigerator filled with Gatorade. Senior Alan Wisniewski is in charge of weights. If the tasks aren’t completed, there are consequences like extra running and push ups in practice.
With the changes, Chambers has noticed a difference in the leadership approach.
“What I’m seeing is a transfer to the leaders,” Chambers said. “The leaders are now doing it, where I don’t have to do it.”
“They’re starting to take the keys to the car and they’re the ones demanding that guys get things done and keeping guys accountable,” he added. “For me, that’s part of the process of becoming a better program and a better team.”
Chambers said he’s learned plenty from the last three seasons, and added that learning on the job has been invaluable. In fact, he cherishes the difficulty of the Big Ten. Instead of pointing to the conference’s top-to-bottom strength as an excuse, he views the team’s tough slate as a challenge. Competing against some of the nation’s best coaches, like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, Ohio State’s Thad Matta, and Indiana’s Tom Crean, is what drives him.
“As a man, you have to embrace the struggle,” Chambers said. “You love the challenge of this league, and that’s why I embrace it every day. I cherish it, I learn from the past years and all these failures and setbacks, and it’s just going to make us a better coach and a better staff and a better program.”
With commitments from a trio of three-star athletes already in the 2015 class and a blockbuster commitment from four-star power forward Joe Hampton out of the famous Oak Hill Academy in Virginia (the former school of current NBA stars Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, and Kevin Durant), it appears Chambers could be on the precipice of doing the unthinkable — turning Penn State men’s basketball into a perennial winner.
“The process has been long, it’s been windy, it’s been difficult, but you have to cherish it sometimes, because you’re really building something special, building something from the ground up,” he said.
“For me, I would like to see us take that next step this year.”
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After losing my father to cancer, I thought there was nothing THON could offer me that I didn’t already know. After four years, I found comfort in the familiar.
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