Searching for Something in the Dark

by Farmer Jones / @thefarmerjones

They needed two plays to seal it, a pretty 10-foot floater from junior guard Tim Frazier with 5.4 seconds left, then a block in the lane by sophomore wing Jermaine Marshall at the buzzer. Two plays by two guys you’ve most likely never heard of, clinching Penn State an upset of No. 22 Illinois Thursday night in snowy State College.

They get one or two a year like this around here, a couple of impressive wins in seasons that mostly range from mediocre to poor. This season, the Nittany Lions stand 10-10, 2-5 in the conference, their other Big Ten win a 20-point thrashing of a pretty good Purdue squad. They also lost, at home, to Lafayette.

It’s not news that Penn State isn’t a basketball school and probably never will be. There are a lot of good reasons for this, not least being the lack of any natural recruiting base for hoops. Of course, one of the biggest reasons why Penn State will never be a basketball school is because most people who care about Penn State don’t care if Penn State is ever a basketball school. Because of football. Obviously.

At the moment, though, we’ll take any distraction we can get.

Yeah, it’s weird in Happy Valley these days, and while a good basketball team wouldn’t really alleviate the weirdness to any extent that matters, it would at least take our mind off of things. It’s not likely this program can ever provide that sort of happy distraction on a consistent basis, but on nights like this, at least, we can dream.

What makes this season at least a little bit different is the attitude. Or I should say, ATTITUDE. First year coach Patrick Chambers is a former printer salesman and part-time assistant coach who decided to chase the coaching dream full-time 10 years ago after he was—pay attention now—stabbed in the neck. Yes, that really happened.

After not dying from being stabbed in the neck, Chambers joined Jay Wright’s staff at Villanova in 2004 then took the head job at Boston U. in 2009. He came to Penn State last fall after Ed DeChellis left for Navy. Chambers is still every bit the salesman, if a salesman had a baby with a motivational speaker whose uncle was a drill sergeant. Or something. Whatever. He’s intense as hell.

This program needed some intensity, but it also needed some players, which, short-term, was a problem considering that 80-some percent of the offense from last year’s NCAA Tournament team—most notably all-time leading scorer Talor Battle—was lost to graduation. About the only proven player on the roster was Frazier (pictured), an undersized guard out of Houston who had never had to prove himself as an actual scorer. Coming into Thursday night’s game, though, he led the Big Ten with nine 20-point games, and he was averaging 18.2 overall.

(As I type this, two guys on the Big Ten Network are attempting to answer the question “Is Tim Frazier the best point guard in the Big Ten?” The media notes say he’s the only player in the country averaging at least 17 points and 6.5 assist per. I say, why not?)

This is nowhere near the best team in the Big Ten, of course: Penn State was a consensus pre-season pick for the expanded league’s first-ever 12th-place finish. If they can avoid that ignominy, it’ll be because of Frazier’s much-improved offense—the floater he used to beat Illinois was nowhere to be found when he got here three years ago—and because of a team-wide commitment to the attitude (read: hustle) plays that Chambers insists upon. It’s working: As of Thursday night, they’re leading the league in steals.

Chambers’ hire was hyped in large part because of how his natural salesmanship might play with recruits, particularly in his native and talent-rich Philly, where Penn State has historically gotten nowhere with top recruits. He’s already pulled Philly native DJ Newbill, a transfer from Southern Miss who will be eligible next season—and who, from what he’s shown at practice, looks like the second-best player on the squad. So there’s hope for next season, and beyond.

And, on nights like this, there’s hope for now. Not much, but like I said. It’s been an ugly few months around here. We’ll take the occasional upset of a ranked team. We’ll take the glimpses of potential. If that potential manifests, we’ll even consider the possibility of maybe, one day, being a basketball school. A guy can dream.