We're in the midst of another 10+ game Big Ten losing streak for the Penn State men's basketball team. This is the 7th occasion of such a streak, so it isn't exactly a new experience. It usually causes soul-searching and life contemplation as a PSU fan. Is it healthy to generate this much frustration about a sports team? Why am I wasting my life watching this? Will they ever not be so damn horrible?
Well, here's the result of my own contemplation of how we got here, where we are, and where can we go. It's long and probably boring for a lot of you, but I enjoy being a revisionist. Deal with it. There are section titles for your convenience, if you would like to pick and choose what you consume here. Most of the relevant stuff is towards the end.
Where Did It All Go Wrong?
There once was a time when we all thought this program might have escaped these hellish seasons for good. At least for a little longer than what it's been. That time I'm referring to was immediately following the NIT championship in 2009. Ed DeChellis, for all of his faults, somehow put his program in a position to sustain a respectable 2-3 year run that could catapult the program to respectability.
The idea was for DeChellis to develop the returning 7-man nucleus, which included a budding superstar in Talor Battle, into a formidable Big Ten team over the next two years (since everyone had at least two years of eligibility remaining). Four-star guard Taran Buie just committed for 2011 and now, for the first time in the regime's history, the staff could get a jump on recruiting a future class that was going to be critical to sustaining any progress made over the next two years.
It started off well that summer as the NIT championship was used to put the team's superstar on the national USA U-20 team, giving great exposure to the program. The staff didn't make huge waves in the recruiting scene, but they did return to Columbus, Ohio and land a verbal commitment from a promising point guard named Trey Burke back in October 2009. It seemed like the seeds of sustainability were being planted.
Then the 2009-2010 season happened.
Sure, they weren't expected to be as good as the year before after losing Cornley, Pringle, and Morrissey, but they also weren't expected to fall off a cliff. It started off poorly that November at the Charleston Classic with losses to UNC-Wilmington and Tulane. Then a last place finish in the Big Ten after starting 0-12 in the conference absolutely incinerated any momentum the program had gained from the buzz of the previous year's accomplishments.
Unlike this season, that year was frustrating on a whole different level because they simply underachieved tremendously. Essentially no one improved from the year before and the superstar was asked to do everything. It led to some incredibly frustrating performances and destroyed what only needed to be a marginal year. Remember the Michigan game at home? What about when they gave up a 4-point lead by going scoreless for the last three minutes in Champaign? How about losing to the worst teams in the league in Iowa and Indiana? Then there was this:
A potential 5-game winning streak that could've led to a 5-2 Big Ten start was crapped away into a
seven twelve game losing streak, but enough with the torture already. The team's record speaks for itself, and many fans never forgave DeChellis for it, myself included.
The fallout was drastic but expected. Chris Babb and Bill Edwards left because they saw the ship was sinking. Trey Burke smartly backed out of his verbal before the summer and never seriously considered PSU again. The recruiting momentum for the 2011 class was completely squandered. The biggest mistake of all, in my opinion, was the retention of DeChellis as head coach. The AD decided it was in their best interest to publicly support a program that just watched itself piss away the future.
Battle and his teammates had an inspirational run in March 2011 that rewarded their perseverance with a well-deserved trip to the NCAAs. But with Buie being a bust who was later kicked off the team, a 2011 class devoid of any impact recruits, and so few experienced players returning (outside of Frazier), everyone knew that there was no hope for building off their first NCAA bid in a decade.
How Chambers Ended Up at Penn State
It all began with Texas Tech hiring Billy Gillespie, whose drunken self has already resigned. Why the Red Raiders took a second chance on him, we will never know, but it did set the wheels in motion that led to a new PSU head coach.
Gillespie lured now interim head coach Chris Walker away from Villanova to be his top assistant. Jay Wright was stuck with an opening on his own staff until he was able to bring back Billy Lange, his former #1 assistant who apparently grew weary of losing all the time as the head coach at Navy. Lange resigned from his post as head coach and returned to the Main Line.
That opening was then filled by DeChellis, as we all remember. There's a myriad of reasons for why he could have made the 'backwards move', as many called it. I do think job security was a factor since it was practically a 'forced marriage' at that point with neither party willing to commit to the other. I also think he genuinely desired the opportunity and didn't consider it a demotion at all. Regardless of how or why, it happened. For our purposes in this story, the main factor for Penn State was when.
The announcement that DeChellis was leaving his alma mater broke 50 days after the college basketball season ended. The coaching carousel was nearing a halt, when all of a sudden Penn State was left scrambling to pick from a diluted pool of unproven candidates.
Remember some of those names that were mentioned with Chambers during the search? Ron Everhart was fired from Duquesne after last season and is now an assistant under Bob Huggins at WVU. Rob Jeter was only able to lead his UW-Milwaukee team to the CBI last year and is now 6-20 this season. Jeff Lebo is still wallowing in mediocrity at East Carolina. Remember Jim Boylen? He hasn't even landed a job since being fired at Utah.
There's no doubt in my mind that at the time, our previous leaders we all know and love couldn't have hired anyone realistically better than Patrick Chambers.
The fact still remains, however, Penn State had hired someone whose pedigree included just 2 years as a head basketball coach at one of the lowest levels of D-1 hoops there is. He simply didn't have a resume that came close to matching what should be the standard requirements to coach in the best league in the country. He was, and still is, a very big risk, but PSU made that bed back in 2010 by bringing back DeChellis for one more year.
How Chambers Started With His Hands Tied
It was June 3rd when it was announced Chambers was hired. Unfortunately, the hectic spring signed period always ends in mid-May (this year it's May 15th), so guess who didn't get to play in the spring lottery back in 2011? All of the returning players and Chambers were forced into making it work because neither party could survive without the other . There were no players available to bring into the program and no openings at other schools for the players to depart if they didn't want to stick it out with a new coach.
What made matters even more difficult is the fact that almost the entire team had multiple years of eligiblity remaining. Chambers inherited 12 scholarship players (since Juwan Staten abruptly left before he ever transferred in) and only one of them was a senior (Woodyard). The first player to go almost immediately was Tre Bowman (now the 6th man at Iona averaging 8.6 PPG), who already seemed to be on thin ice with DeChellis and was the best friend of the dismissed Buie. Even with his departure, the scholarships just weren't there to make an immediate splash in recruiting.
Perhaps the situation wasn't so bad after all considering how far behind in the 2012 recruiting year they were already, but then you look at the great freshmen season Devin Thomas is having for Wake Forest and you can't help but think Chambers probably wished he kept recruiting him. At the time, he had already filled two open scholarships with Akosa Maduegbunam and DJ Newbill. The third (and final) remaining grant came down to Brandon Taylor and Thomas. Once Taylor committed to PSU, Thomas told me PSU said they were out of scholarships and he was going to look elsewhere, eventually landing at Wake Forest a few weeks later.
It would not have been unfair whatsoever for Chambers to assume one would open before Thomas would be scheduled to enroll and sure enough, 4 became available by the end of last season. Maybe that's why the roster for next season is oversigned by 2 scholarships, because they could surely use Thomas' game inside right now.
In some of his earliest interviews at Penn State, Chambers birthed this term to the masses. He used it to describe deeper conversations he could have if he believed some of these forced arrangements weren't going to work out for the players and coaches alike.
Skeptics equated it as a cover to simply run kids away from the program. Many Penn Staters still remain uneasy at this motion. Frankly, I think the term has been so overblown I want to puke every time I see it.
From my perspective, only in one situation could the term 'carefrontation' be applied - true freshman center Pete Alexis. It was announced in January last season that Alexis was not going to return to Penn State this season. He sat the whole year out then transferred to Philadelphia U, where he is already off to a much better career than he ever would've had here.
There was good reason to announce this during the season. It was obvious PSU was getting in deep with 2012 Pittsburgh F Sheldon Jeter, and oh the horror, PSU didn't have any scholarships available. With DeChellis' bombshell just a few months prior, the current players could easily still have doubts lingering in their heads about their futures. Chambers wisely avoided having to answer the hard questions by confronting whose scholarship was opening up, instead of pushing the players away into their own paranoid guessing game of who was on the chopping block. This delicate situation cost them a shot at Devin Thomas, as previously mentioned.
Chambers is such a good marketer though, that now whenever a Penn State player leaves the team, it's attributed as a 'carefrontation'. Even though Trey Lewis and Matt Glover left after year one for respectable reasons of their own right, many still believe it was solely Chambers' call. Glover needed to return home to his family while Lewis wanted out of the forced relationship he never asked for. It was natural attrition that can be seen at hundreds of college programs, not just in basketball.
Basically what I'm trying to say is the whole thing of 'carefrontations' is stupid and needs to die. Players are going to transfer and it can be for any damn reason they want it to be, even if it's because the coach said he doesn't envision them being a factor on the court in their PSU careers. This program has lost 19 players to transfer in the last decade. There's close to 500 a year in college basketball. It's just part of the game and it always will be.
Turning A Nightmare Into A Dream
This rebuilding project caught its first break on November 18th. It might not have seemed like it at the time, but Tim Frazier's ruptured achilles is nothing short of a small miracle for Chambers. Obviously, you never want to see or root for a player to get hurt, but the chance to have Frazier back in 2014 could pay dividends. It at least gives Tim a greater opportunity to leave a stronger mark on this rebuilding program.
What would this team be looking at if Frazier didn't get hurt in Puerto Rico? 3 or 4 more wins this year? They were predicted to finish 11th in the Big Ten when everyone thought the all-conference performer would be at the helm anyway. And what if he graduated after this season that was in the toilet already? What would the potential of next year's team with brand new freshmen expected to run the show after losing a player who accounted for nearly 50% of the offense?
Clearly the potential of either team is much higher with Frazier in the 2014 picture. With the senior captain well on his way to recovery, it will be up to Chambers to take advantage of the extra year with his talented point guard.
Unfortunately the potential of this dream scenario has come at a steep cost. We know all too well how badly this team has played without him. The backup point guards already transferred out, and Chambers couldn't find a solution he was comfortable with in the spring period. He pocketed the ship back into his coveted 2013 class for which he has high expectations. It's a decision that was made in the best interest of the program over the long haul, but they sure are biting the bullet now.
Now they find themselves on the brink of Big Ten futility, staring right into a potential 0-19 winless season in league play. That is just something I'm not sure any coach here could survive. Fortunately for Chambers, after hauling in 10 new scholarship players already, the short-term recruiting for the health of the program has been stabilized. But the negative sting from a season like this, if it indeed finishes as bleak as we fear, is far stronger ammunition to recruit against than anything Jerry Sandusky, Bon Jovi, or a lack of fan support ever could be.
Let's just pull out one of these last 7 games and wait to worry about this scenario if it rears its ugly head.
The Future And Beyond
Now is Pat Chambers the man to lead Penn State basketball out of obscurity into national relevancy?
There are plenty reasons for doubt, and I've already outlined some of them in this monologue. You can't deny his inexperience. The recruiting efforts have yet to produce much different results on paper. The Big Ten is as strong as ever with about 5 programs firmly entrenched at the top. No one's ever been able to knock Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, or Bo Ryan down in this league.
All that said, I'm still a BIG believer, and it will have to take a few more years for me to renege on the man. Here's a few reasons why:
1. Passion - This guy clearly wears his emotions on his sleeve and you just know he cares. It could just be a breath of fresh air since he's still new around these parts, but he left a stable, high-income job with the family business to follow his passion as a basketball coach. His coaching career now hinges on what he accomplishes here. There's no going back now. If he wants to make it in big-time college basketball, he has to win here. He is devoted to turning this program around 100%. You hire a Larry Brown or another big name coach, I don't think you get that same level of commitment.
2. Marketability - This is a guy who has already done a pretty respectable job already drawing up interest in a deadbeat program right now. It's not noticeable in the stands yet, but people will rally around this guy. No one rallied around DeChellis. In fact, I remember quite fondly my times in the student section where it seemed everyone was more interested booing our coach than cheering the team. The students LOVE this guy and how can they not after his THON donation? Or the Chamburgers Giveaway? Or Rallying the Valley? Or the golf cart? People can actually identify who our basketball coach is on campus. It seems silly, but that was not the case when I was a student all of 3 years ago.
3. Connections - Granted, I just admitted that on paper, his recruiting so far hasn't made waves through college basketball. But this guy clearly is well-received across grassroots and high school basketball, especially in PA. Obviously he has deep Philadelphia connections, but it expands all over the state and into other talent-rich areas PSU has never been able to penetrate before. He obviously isn't afraid to go against the big boys and works his ass off out on the road. Let's just say I don't think the previous PSU head coaches enjoyed recruiting as much as Pat Chambers does. I say give him a chance to showcase to some of these high-end players that you can win at Penn State, and I have little doubt he'll start reeling in bigger fish.
At the end of the day, it's always going to come down to the Jimmy's and Joe's and X's and O's, especially with a program lacking in tradition like PSU. But with where this team went wrong a few years ago and what Chambers had to inherit, he's got more than 2 years to make that right with me. It's not his fault a coach was retained for too long and all momentum was stunted.
The real games start next year when a full deck of cards is in play. Expectations will be raised with 5 new players + Frazier and if guys aren't producing or making the same mistakes over and over again, they're not going to have the luxury of 'playing through it'. Hopefully there will be players available to contend for others' playing time off the bench. We'll have a much clearer picture of where this program is headed then.
For now, let's stop using Chambers or the players as scapegoats for mistakes committed by people who are no longer involved with this university and focus on getting a freakin' win. Let's go State!