March Madness Or Not, This Season Changed The Narrative Of Penn State Hoops
When I arrived at Penn State for my freshman year in the fall of 2016, I had no expectation of the school having a truly competitive men’s basketball team — and for good reason.
After all, head coach Pat Chambers had registered just one winning season in his first five years at the helm, an 18-16 season in 2014-15 that didn’t result in a postseason appearance. The 2016-17 team was mostly made up of freshman contributors, as a trio of Roman Catholic prospects and a redshirt freshman stepped into major roles immediately.
The lack of major success continued for most of my first three years on campus, as occasional upsets during my freshman and junior years sandwiched the Nittany Lions’ respectable campaign in 2017-18 — a 26-13 season that ended with an NIT title and the program’s second-highest win total ever.
For many people following this team closely, two winning seasons in eight years just wasn’t enough. Even as notable players like Tim Frazier, D.J. Newbill, Shep Garner, Tony Carr, Josh Reaves, Lamar Stevens, and others suited up for the blue and white under Chambers, fans began to expect the worst from Penn State basketball year in and year out. They held their hands over their eyes often, watching through the cracks of their fingers as the Nittany Lions yielded countless heartbreaking comebacks to blue-blood programs, while also suffering plenty of embarrassing losses to mid-major pushovers along the way. And the pressure wasn’t just building. Some fans were calling for a change, starting with the head coach.
That all changed with this 2019-20 season for Chambers’ program. Expectations were higher than normal entering Chambers’ ninth season in Happy Valley with plenty of experience on the roster returning from the prior season in which Penn State vastly underachieved compared to its potential. The idea of an NCAA Tournament berth seemed to be somewhat realistic this season, even though the team hadn’t reached the Big Dance since the days of the program’s all-time scoring leader Talor Battle and head coach Ed DeChellis in 2011.
However, plenty of Penn Staters had heard that “This is the year” narrative many times before. Why would this year be any different?
Yet, Penn State started 10-1 in non-conference play, beating historic programs like Syracuse and Georgetown, while also defeating Yale, the Ivy League champion. The Nittany Lions even picked up a relatively easy win against then-No. 4 Maryland at the BJC in December, leading for the last 36 minutes of the game and prompting students to storm the court.
The team earned its first AP Top 25 ranking since 1996 before its meeting at the Palestra against No. 23 Iowa just after the start of the new year. The No. 21 Nittany Lions held off the Hawkeyes in a classic battle that featured a career-high 23 points off the bench by Philly-native Izaiah Brockington. Penn State was 12-2, and moved up into the top 20 in the rankings on its way to Rutgers.
A three-game losing streak ensued, as the Nittany Lions’ offense stalled out. Road losses to the Scarlet Knights and Minnesota sandwiched a particularly bad defeat at home to Wisconsin, and suddenly the narrative returned. The team was 2-4 in the Big Ten, and had fallen out of the rankings. Critics called it the “same old Penn State,” and the mentality around Happy Valley outside of the diehards began to trend toward “Here we go again.”
What followed after that three-game skid was a run that truly sets this season apart from any Penn State basketball run in school history. The Nittany Lions won eight straight games in conference play, during arguably the most competitive season of college basketball that the Big Ten has ever had. When winning on the road became seemingly impossible for teams across the conference, Penn State rattled off four consecutive road wins against Michigan, Nebraska, No. 16 Michigan State, and Purdue. By the time Penn State won its eighth in a row with a win over Northwestern, the Nittany Lions found themselves ranked No. 9. They had a 20-5 overall record and a 10-4 mark within the Big Ten.
Penn State struggled over the last three weeks of the season, losing five of its last six games in the wake of losing Myreon Jones for six games due to an illness. The Nittany Lions seemingly lost their momentum and their legs, as shots that fell often during the winning streak started to miss during the closing stretch of the regular season.
Still, there were so many reasons for optimism as Penn State prepared for its second round Big Ten Tournament matchup with Indiana that was slated for Thursday night. A win or two in the conference tournament could’ve completely swung the momentum back in favor of the Nittany Lions, and put them back into the conversation for a five-seed or better in the NCAA Tournament. For reference, Joe Lunardi’s final bracketology update had Penn State as a six-seed.
Considering that the team hadn’t even participated in March Madness under Chambers, being considered one of the nation’s best teams for a large chunk of the season is a major success for a program that has lacked familiarity with being a prominent figure in the college basketball landscape.
The Nittany Lions’ lineup could go nine-deep when healthy this year, with a roster that seemingly had all the necessary pieces to make a run in the Big Dance when everything was clicking: a go-to leader and star player in Lamar Stevens, a consistent second option in Myreon Jones, and a blend of experienced role players (Mike Watkins, John Harrar, Jamari Wheeler, Curtis Jones Jr.) mixed with promising younger guys that will only continue to improve (Myles Dread, Seth Lundy, Izaiah Brockington).
Stevens paired his exceptional talent with equally commendable leadership skills and became the main identity of a team that, for so long, had badly needed one. Watkins opened up about personal struggles off the court that sometimes affected his consistency on it, but his bravery in sharing his tumultuous journey and his efforts to improve day by day showed his maturity — and why college basketball can be a lot more important than just the numbers on the scoreboard. Grad transfer senior Curtis Jones Jr. was a calm figure among a young backcourt, bringing his experience and occasional high scoring outbursts from stops with two other Power Five teams to a program that was starving for another grounding presence.
The progression of Penn State’s returning cast members leaves room for more optimism. Myreon Jones, slated behind Iowa State transfer Rasir Bolton last season, blossomed into a fantastic scorer that can beat you in the paint, beyond the arc, or with his proficient passing. Jamari Wheeler’s spectacular defense and high-octane motor paved the way for Penn State’s offensive improvement, and led to his first All-Big Ten Defensive Team selection. John Harrar became a key role player with his hard-nosed defense and attention to rebounding.
Myles Dread suffered a tough shooting slump for most of his sophomore season, but clutch three-pointers to help seal wins over Minnesota, Northwestern, and Rutgers during the last month of the regular season helped keep the team on track in the merciless Big Ten. Freshman Seth Lundy and sophomore transfer Izaiah Brockington offered versatility and athleticism that Penn State has rarely had, and their potential is through the roof as the team tries to make up for Stevens’s production.
Chambers will add four new recruits in what ranks as Penn State’s best class since 2016, when it signed two top-100 recruits in Stevens and Carr. The Nittany Lions return six of their top nine players in their rotation, in addition to periodical contributors like Trent Buttrick and Kyle McCloskey. The success of the team this season should theoretically lead to even better recruiting and progress in the future.
When this season goes down in the record books, it will not end with Stevens at the top of the scoring list. It won’t feature an official NCAA Tournament appearance. But for those who were fortunate enough to witness the growth of this group, the fact is simple: Penn State should no longer be looked at as a below-average basketball school.
Fans flocked out to Happy Valley from all over the state to turn a venue that has normally been known for its silence into an atmosphere with a true home-court advantage. The student body lined up outside of the Bryce Jordan Center on cold Saturday mornings in January in order to score tickets to games, and on multiple occasions, the demand was so great that some students were turned away. Rothsteinisms aside, there was truly a palpable buzz around Penn State basketball.
It’s truly unfair to this team that it won’t get an opportunity to show what its all about in front of the whole world, after the NCAA canceled all remaining winter and spring sports in reaction to the global coronavirus outbreak. Fortunately, plenty of amazing moments define a season that exorcised the program’s brutally unlucky past. From Stevens’s involvement in the community as a phenomenal role model, to Wheeler’s smile and undeniable energy as he flew around the court, to Harrar’s belly-flop/slide at Purdue, to so many other memorable points during this breakthrough season, this Penn State team finally managed to merge its diehard fanatics with the rest of the school’s athletic fanbase into one faction: believers in the Climb.
“Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins and these seniors, when they first came here maybe that belief wasn’t as strong as it is today, but they believe that they’re going to go out and win every single game,” Chambers said after one of the team’s final games last month.
Things are much different than they were four years ago for Penn State basketball, and the cancellation of an NCAA Tournament can’t change that. And that, in itself, is a giant step in the Nittany Lions’ perpetual climb among the college basketball hierarchy.
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