The potential for Penn State's 2011-2012 basketball season was lost a long time ago. There once was a time when we all thought Chris Babb, Bill Edwards, Taran Buie, and Trey Burke would carry the torch after Talor Battle's class graduated. But since that foundation blew up, the program lost any chance to build off of last year's unlikely NCAA berth.
This team wasn't going to be competing for any postseason tournaments. The personnel wasn't talented enough to overcome the youth and inexperience. This was known even before the head coach bailed two months into the offseason.
Pat Chambers knew it, which is why all season long the goal was simply to get better and be the best team they could be at the end of the year. It was really about instilling the principles of hard work, a positive attitude, and playing with great confidence. Anyone who watched the team this year saw that this foundation has been laid. A selfless, gritty culture conducive to winning has inhabited the Bryce Jordan Center.
On the floor, the expectations have changed. It became clear under Chambers that your playing time was determined by your effort on defense and on the glass (remember this look?). The emphasis on the defensive side of the ball is a welcomed change, considering it has been this team's greatest weakness on the court ever since I've been a follower. Penn State's 97.2 defensive efficiency this year (measured by KenPom.com) was the third best mark in the last 10 seasons. Imagine how much better that stat could have been if the opposing teams didn't shoot so well from 3 against the Lions.
I could go into deeper stat analysis on the season, but the limits of this year's team were fairly obvious without the numbers. They were by far the most inexperienced team in the league and it showed on both ends. They had no proven scorers at the start and only two consistent options emerged during the season. The offense couldn't score, especially on the road, despite motion sets that generated better looks. The defense struggled with rotation assignments in Chambers' pack-style philosophy that often saw players out of position to contest perimeter jump shots.
But considering that everyone was adjusting to either a new regime or major college basketball in general, this team scrapped their way to 12 wins, including 4 in the highest rated conference in America. They developed a respected, blue-collar reputation across the conference for their intensity. And even though there were plenty of excuses for losing, Chambers accepted no moral victories and made it known that losing wasn't going to be tolerated.
It's impossible to fathom anyone feeling better about a last place season. Four conference wins exceeded the expectations of many, including myself. Even then though, it was never really about the wins. While Frazier was blossoming into an All-American caliber point guard, the younger guys showed enough flashes that maybe they could develop into something sooner rather than later.
Hopefully in a few years we can all look back on the 2011-2012 season as a reminder of just where it all began.