by Leigh Klein
It may be too early to say that Penn State basketball has arrived, but it certainly isn’t what it used to be. Penn State has only two NCAA Tournament appearances since 2001, and while they likely won’t make a return this year, things could be pointed in the right direction.
In his third year, head coach Pat Chambers is inching forward to lead the Nittany Lions back to respectability. Chambers has brought a passion and fight to Happy Valley. He also has a resume that has worked results.
Chambers’ first head-coaching stop was Boston University where he posted back-to-back 21-win seasons and led the Terriers to the NCAA Tournament. In June 2011, he was announced as the Nittany Lions’ head coach, a program with one Sweet 16 appearance in the prior 50 years.
Currently his third season has brought the most B1G Ten victories so far during his time at State College, which includes a sweep of Ohio State and a win against Indiana. Most impressively, Chambers has infused his fiery determination to the locker room and the result has been one of the best guard tandems in the nation this season in Tim Frazier and DJ Newbill. It’s hard to imagine how strong the program would be if former Penn State guard, Jermaine Marshall, stuck around instead of bolting for Arizona State. But despite this transfer loss, Marshall’s departure created an opportunity for a young core to evolve. Five of the team’s top six scorers are either sophomores or juniors. Three of the team’s top rebounders are poised to return as well.
Chambers doesn’t have to look far for a program to model his team after.
Another Philly product, Fran McCaffery has turned the Iowa Hawkeyes into a B1G Ten contender and a top-25 program. After a mid-February defeat at the hands to the Hawkeyes, Chambers talked about the state of the program.
“I would say we are a year behind him (McCaffery). I feel like I am in year two with the things that went on here in the first year as far as getting the job so late,” Chambers said after the 82-70 home loss to Iowa on February 15. “I like to think that we are on that path because that is my vision. My vision is exactly what Coach McCaffery is doing with his program. He has a lot of good guys on there. They play tough. I would like to think we are on that road to success.”
Chambers has the Nittany Lions playing everyone close to the best, only the B1G Ten opener at Michigan State did they lose by greater than 15 points. That Philly fight and grit in him is contagious. To ensure that it doesn’t only come from the coaching staff, Chambers has made his old hometown a recruiting priority. One of the top incoming recruits, Shep Garner, is the star shooting guard for Roman Catholic, possibly the most heralded program in Philadelphia school ball history. Junior star guard, DJ Newbill played his high school basketball at Strawberry Mansion, also in the city.
Hovering around .500, confidence is growing in Happy Valley. Ending the season strong building on their conference win total would provide momentum going into next season.
“It would mean everything. Our goal is to be the best team we can be and at the end of season it is coming down to the wire,” Newbill said after the upset win over Ohio State last week. “We want to win as many games as possible and keep winning, win the next home game Sunday and get ready for the B1G Ten Tournament.”
Now the Nittany Lions have to replace Frazier next year and show that they are a program, capable of re-loading year in, year out. For certain, Frazier would like to cap off his all-time Nittany Lion career with a run through this year’s Big Ten Tournament. One thing for sure is that this is the team no one wants to face in Indianapolis this year.
And the same will likely be said next year as well.
Leigh Klein was formerly on staff at Texas and Rhode Island and now owns Five-Star Basketball Camps, the nation’s top basketball camp. He contributes to SLAM’s coverage of college basketball and the NBA Draft and is a frequent national radio guest. Klein can be followed @LeighAlanKlein.