Penn State Hoops Enters A Crucial Stretch In Big Ten Play
Much has been made of the Penn State basketball program’s inability to fulfill its potential during the Pat Chambers era.
The 2013-14 season, in which the Nittany Lions were led by Tim Frazier, D.J. Newbill, Brandon Taylor, and Ross Travis, ended with a 16-18 record. The following season brought equal expectations, yet yielded similar results with an 18-16 record after only losing Frazier to graduation.
This season looks like it’s in grave danger of following the same path. The Nittany Lions saw massive second half comebacks fall short at home to Wisconsin and Minnesota. Chambers’ team also suffered an upset loss to Rider at the BJC, and most recently blew a lead to Northwestern, finishing the last 10:37 of the game without making a single shot from the field.
That said, Penn State has faced plenty of adversity during this season. Josh Reaves has missed five games now due to an academic-related suspension. Tony Carr suffered a long slump that crippled the Nittany Lions’ offense. Meanwhile, phenomenal play by Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens went to waste night in and night out due to a complete lack of bench production.
However, Carr seemed to put an end to his slump during the overtime period of Penn State’s overtime win over Nebraska on January 12. Watkins is leading the Big Ten in field-goal percentage. Stevens has scored in double figures for 11 games and counting.
“We’re close,” Coach Chambers said last week. “We are right there.”
In many ways, Chambers is right. Penn State has come awfully close in several of its losses, unable to pull out some winnable games at the very end.
The well-known Pomeroy advanced statistics rankings help lead us beyond the wins and losses columns for college basketball teams. There’s even a ranking for luck, and (surprise!) it doesn’t favor the Nittany Lions.
Despite coming in at No. 49 in ESPN’s BPI rankings and No. 64 in KenPom’s overall rankings, Penn State’s spot in the luck column is No. 331 out of 351 Division I basketball teams.
“Someone told me the other day that only two teams in the conference have been in every single game they’ve played in with four minutes to go — Purdue and Penn State,” said Coach Chambers. “We’re growing, we’re learning, we’re right there. It’s a growing process.”
That luck column isn’t enough to spare this team from the truth. Penn State is currently tied with Maryland for ninth place in the Big Ten at 3-5. The Nittany Lions travel to No. 13 Ohio State Thursday night before turning around 36 hours later to prepare for an afternoon home game against a physical Rutgers team. If the Nittany Lions can somehow make it through those games unharmed, they still face a trip to East Lansing next week to take on No. 6 Michigan State.
This three-game stretch is brutal, and it won’t get any easier for the Nittany Lions. After back-to-back home games, Penn State will close its final five games with this two-week gauntlet: at Illinois, home vs. No. 13 Ohio State, at No. 3 Purdue, home vs. No. 25 Michigan, and finally away at Nebraska.
Even an optimist will tell you the Nittany Lions are likely to go 3-2 at best against that competition, placing even more importance on these next three games. At 13-8 overall and 3-5 in the conference, this team is right on the edge of having yet another hyped season fall embarrassingly short of its potential. And despite the three leading scorers on this team being sophomores, it’s hard to accept much more mediocrity from such a talented bunch.
Pat Chambers has dealt with a hot seat at time during his tenure as Penn State’s head coach. However, his chair is hotter now than it’s ever been.
A poor performance or two against these types of teams could give the Nittany Lions too many losses to even stumble into the NIT. Yet, if there’s any magic trick hidden up the coach’s sleeve, a few wins against these top opponents could be enough to keep Chambers in Happy Valley through the remainder of his contract.