It's a big week for Penn State basketball as the Lions travel down to Charleston, South Carolina for the 2014 edition of ESPN's Charleston Classic. The 8-team, bracketed tournament once again offers a tremendous barometer of where the Nittany Lions stand around Thanksgiving. Penn State faces Charlotte in the first round on Thursday (5:00pm, ESPNU) and could potentially play quality teams like South Carolina and Miami (FL) later in the week.
Since the NCAA did away with the "two-in-four" scheduling rule in 2006, Penn State has participated in six exempt tournaments. Each one offered a chance to see the Lions face real competition for the first time. Each one caused a certain level of disappointment, mostly to the extreme.
While the expectations for Penn State are rising in year four of the Pat Chambers era, it might be best to relive some of the disappointment suffered in seasons past as a means to temper some hopes for this week...
2007 Old Spice Classic - Orlando, FL
The first event Penn State got invited to when the rules changed was the second ever Old Spice Classic at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. This was Ed DeChellis' fifth season in State College, one that was expected to yield some kind of meaningful postseason for senior Geary Claxton, now that he finally had a capable point guard in true freshmen Talor Battle. Penn State headed into ESPN's event at 2-0, high off a 93-40 drubbing of hapless Canisius.
The respectable field included teams like Villanova, NC State, Kansas State and George Mason. Penn State drew a decent matchup against an average South Carolina team in the first round. But things quickly went south in a hurry for DeChellis' crew as they dropped their first game 74-67. Black Friday brought more pain in the form of a maddening 82-73 loss to Rider. And instead of salvaging the trip with just one win, the Lions capped it off with a hopeless 70-59 loss to Central Florida. The Lions proved uncompetitive in a field that included just three NCAA teams (all seeded 11 and 12) and one NIT team.
Penn State rebounded from the disastrous trip to salvage a 10-4 start before Geary Claxton blew out his ACL in the 16th game of the year. Many will try to convince you Penn State was on the right track for a great season before his injury derailed the campaign. The Old Spice Classic nightmare I think is pretty strong evidence to the contrary.
2008 Philly Hoop Group Classic - Philadelphia, PA
DeChellis elected a different kind of exempt tournament for the 2008-2009 season, joining the now-defunct Philly Hoop Group Classic. Participants in the 8-team field included Villanova, Rhode Island, Towson, Monmouth, Niagara, NJIT and Hartford. Outside of Villanova, clearly this field was painfully weak. In fact, the entire 4-game spectacle seemed worthless if Penn State wasn't able to face Villanova, presumably in the championship.
Despite coming into the Philly Classic at 5-0, Penn State dropped a disappointing 77-72 loss to a beatable Rhode Island team, effectively throwing away its non-conference schedule in the process. The Lions weren't able to face top-50 Villanova the next day, but they instead had to defeat a terrible Towson squad who finished 219 in the RPI.
Remember when the 22-11 Lions were left at the altar on Selection Sunday because of their 307th ranked non-conference schedule? They did face six 200+ and two 300+ RPI opponents in that slate which only comprised of 13 games. Of those eight pitiful opponents, three came from this event's field, including NJIT (who finished 1-30 and 343 in the RPI). Would beating Rhode Island and losing to Villanova been enough to sneak PSU into the NCAAs? That's doubtful, but it doesn't take away from the disappointment that came not only in this event's lack of quality opponents, but in Penn State's inability to beat an unranked Atlantic-10 foe when it absolutely had to.
2009 Charleston Classic - Charleston, SC
Penn State went back to ESPN to join one of its exempt events again in 2009. Perhaps the wounds from the Old Spice Classic had healed to the point where DeChellis felt it was worth the risk to put it on the schedule. Turns out that was probably not the case as his team suffered nearly the same fate as they did in Orlando two years prior.
The 8-team field was once again fairly weak - Miami (FL) (champion), South Florida, South Carolina, La Salle, Davidson, UNC-Wilmington and Tulane. Not one team made the NCAA Tournament and only one team made the NIT (USF). However, Penn State had just suffered the losses of Jamelle Cornley, Stanley Pringle and Danny Morrissey, so it wasn't like expectations were through the roof. The field strength was appropriate for that Penn State team.
Therefore, it should not have fallen flat on its faces. The Nittany Lions lost to UNC Wilmington by double-digits the first day (80-69), then followed that up with another brutal loss to Tulane (63-60). Neither of those teams won more than eight games the rest of the season. Penn State sluggishly found a way to win its last game against a Stephen Curry-less Davidson but just by the skin of their teeth (59-57). It was not nearly enough to salvage the experience.
How'd the rest of the year go? Penn State started out 0-12 in the Big Ten! A future NBA player transferred to Iowa State and then a future Big Ten Player of Year decommitted! It was a nightmare season that was clearly foreshadowed in Charleston.
76 Classic - No Exempt Tournament
DeChellis was going to take one more stab at these things, but Penn State pulled out of its commitment in December 2009 to ESPN's 76 Classic in Anaheim (now the Wooden Legacy). Many speculated it was because of the Lions' lack of success in prior events. Can you blame them if that was truly the reason?
So the Lions passed on the opportunity to play the likes of Oklahoma State, UNLV, Virginia Tech, DePaul and Stanford. Did the decision work out for Penn State? Its non-conference performance still left a lot to be desired as it lost to any major program it faced (including that terrible home loss to Maryland and the home upset to Maine). But at least it was the 58th ranked non-conference slate by the RPI, which allowed Penn State to sneak into the NCAAs after its magical Big Ten tourney run in 2011.
2011 Hall of Fame Tip-Off Classic - Uncasville, CT
DeChellis had already booked Penn State for the Hall of Fame Tip-Off in Connecticut before he bolted for the Naval Academy. However, he did not book the event without the knowledge that Kentucky was in possession of its vaunted 2011 recruiting class - Anthony Davis, Marquis Teague, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. If you recall, Kentucky was your 2012 NCAA champions with those guys.
This exempt event wasn't quite a disappointment like the others, since the 2012 team had absolutely no expectations in Chambers' first year, but the Lions were completely obliterated in their matchup with Big Blue Nation (85-47 final score). I had the pleasure of witnessing this catastrophe in person among too many annoying Kentucky fans. It was painful witnessing just how far Penn State's gap had grown after the 2011 class graduated. Penn State is still trying to close that gap today (and admittedly, it's much smaller).
I would be remiss to not mention that even though Penn State was pantsed by Kentucky, it came back the next day and won an ugly, but enlightening contest against South Florida. To date, this might still be Pat Chambers' most underrated win as Penn State head coach. The Bulls were somewhat unknown at the time, but they developed into a 12-game winner in the media's favorite Big East and made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 in 2012. No clue to this day how Penn State won that 53-49 slug-fest other than pure #ATTITUDE.
2012 Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic - San Juan, PR
In year two of the Chambers Era, the "best backcourt in the country" headed to Puerto Rico for another ESPN event (sense a pattern here?). Tim Frazier was expected to have some help for his senior year in the form of D.J. Newbill and true freshmen Brandon Taylor and Donovon Jack.
The Lions had an unfortunate draw when they had to face what appeared to be the best team in the field, NC State, on the first day. It wasn't the worst Penn State loss in the world, but the Nittany Lions struggled to even stay competitive with the better Wolfpack (72-54 loss).
The next day brought forth a Providence Friars team that had just five scholarships players and one walk-on eligible to compete. Numerous injuries, ineligibilities, and turnover from building a program left Ed Cooley with very little to work with. His two best guards were out with leg injuries, yet Penn State simply could not advantage. Hard to believe a backcourt of Tim Frazier, D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall could only muster 43 points in regulation against that depleted team, but that's exactly what happened. It was horrible to watch in every way and far from a satisfying win.
Then in the fifth place game, Frazier ruptured his achilles, and Penn State got blown off the floor in the second half to Akron. A quality MAC team for sure, but it's never a good indication to lose 85-60 to Akron. Sure enough, Frazier's year was over, Penn State limped on the rest of the way and year two ended up producing fewer wins than year one for Pat Chambers.
2013 Barclays Center Classic - Brooklyn, NY
Last year's exempt tournament can't quite be labelled a nightmare or disappointment, as Penn State defeated St. John's in overtime then lost a close contest to Ole Miss in the championship. However, when the outcomes of both St. John's and Mississippi's seasons came to fruition, it seemed like the Barclays Center Classic was another missed opportunity in a season full of them for Penn State.
Neither of the Lions' main opponents from the event made the NCAA tournament. The Red Storm had a nice mid-season turnaround, but it couldn't negate their 9-8, 0-5 start in the new Big East. Meanwhile, the Rebels couldn't put together any kind of memorable season for their controversial senior, Marshall Henderson, after they failed to make the NCAAs or the NIT. Looking back, perhaps struggling to beat a far-from-developed St. John's club and failing to beat an average opponent in Ole Miss should have hinted to the team's eventual losing prospects in the Big Ten.
2014 Charleston Classic - Charleston, SC
So Penn State returns to the Charleston Classic this week, the 2009 site of its numbing losses to UNC-Wilmington and Tulane. Pat Chambers and his staff have emphasized consistently the need to change the perception of Penn State hoops. They have an opportunity this week to do exactly that by finally winning the games they should (Charlotte) in an exempt event and proving themselves as one of the top teams in this field. Since Penn State already has Drexel and Akron on its schedule in the future, it would be a wasted opportunity to only play Charlotte, Cornell and one of those teams previously mentioned this week.
If the Lions are able to find their way to the right side of the bracket this time, it's not like ranked opponents will be waiting for them. ESPN balances these events with comparable teams, meaning Penn State typically finds itself against fellow power conference bottom-feeders.
PSU will be one of the favorites to win this event, if not the favorite (although it's fair to say last night's upset at Florida earns Miami (FL) that title). Still, Akron, Drexel, Cornell and Charlotte are all teams Penn State should beat in any setting, let alone a bracketed tournament. Southern California, South Carolina and Miami (FL) make up the rest of the field, but Penn State is further along in their rebuilding than either USC (Martin in his 3rd year, Enfield in his 2nd cleaning up Tim Floyd's mess). Only Miami (FL) appears to have potentially a better team than Penn State this season.
Maybe this year Penn State can finally deliver a performance worthy of the anticipation for this upcoming week.