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Penn State Basketball: Closing the Book on the 2015 Season

Year four under Pat Chambers didn't turn out to be the spectacular season many had hoped. Where did it all go wrong?

Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

While it was likely a dream to begin with, Penn State did not receive an NIT invite last night after their 18-16 record in Pat Chambers’ fourth season. They also didn’t express interest in a second-straight CBI invite after their forgettable experience last year. This makes Chambers a liar from a previous press conference earlier this year, but it makes too much sense to sit out that his past lies about their potential CBI interest should be forgiven.

So that's a wrap on the 2014-2015 Penn State season. Overall, it’s a disappointing end to the legendary career of DJ Newbill, as the admirable captain surely would trade his point tallies for an NCAA tournament berth without hesitation. But thankfully this trying season didn’t end with a meaningless finish. Despite its tendency to be one of the more aggravating teams PSU basketball has seen, for one memorable week they were able to purge some of their haunting demons for a brief run of success. Three wins in five days away from their home floor after losing fourteen of their prior seventeen games is quite an unforeseen accomplishment, and #WhyNotUs greatly helped stop some profuse bleeding after Joe Hampton's de-commitment really seemed to put the program at a crossroads.

Even if only for a moment’s notice (one that seemed bound to happen), at least DJ Newbill had his spotlight in the headlines after the Lions upset Iowa in the Big Ten tournament (and a remarkable game-winner just a few days earlier). His play earned himself more than a few new fans, while his growing popularity was aided by the emotional BTN Journey segment that publicized his remarkable story. I would be remiss to not also mention Ross Travis’ brief impersonation of Boss Travis the last few weeks. While Boss was not nearly present enough throughout the whole season like this team needed, you have to at least feel good for Ross’s exit after the insufferable senior year he endured.

But now that the book is closed on the 2014-2015 season, it will sadly be defined as a big missed opportunity. Heading into this year, there were uncertainties about how they could replace Tim Frazier’s production (answer: they couldn’t), but with DJ Newbill and ~75% of the prior year’s minutes returning, it didn’t seem unreasonable to expect Penn State to maintain or even build off their 6 Big Ten win total in 2013-2014. This was confirmed after the 2015 Big Ten season played out exactly how it was prognosticated. The league really turned out to be Wisconsin and everyone else, and it really was not farfetched to believe teams picked near the bottom of this year’s preseason Big Ten poll could finish in the top half of the league (examples: Maryland was picked 8th, Purdue was picked 11th).

It seems like forever ago now, but this season did start out with some fanfare after a 12-1 start through a weak non-conference slate (NCSOS - 298). It was not an impressive 12-1, and the early metrics weren’t favorable, but it was certainly an improvement for a program that has suffered more than its share of embarrassing losses in the non-conference over the years. They at least gave themselves a realistic chance at making the NIT, and possibly even the NCAAs, if they could pull a Degree of DeChellis-like year in the Big Ten.

But it didn't take very long for the season to go off the rails. Looking back on where it all went wrong, the obvious turning point was the disaster in Piscataway in Big Ten game #2. Surely it was an unfavorable draw having to begin the conference slate in Madison, but PSU had very good odds of winning games #2 and #3, and they blew both in depressing fashion. If the Lions show up on Jan. 3rd and defeat hapless Rutgers (who earned that win despite scoring at a pitiful 0.79 PPP), maybe Brandon Taylor and Ross Travis show up versus Michigan and the course of PSU's 2015 season is dramatically altered. However, blowing those two opportunites was all that was needed to begin a miserable 0-6 start in the Big Ten for the third consecutive season. Despite quite a number of close calls the rest of the way, the Lions simply couldn't recover.

A forgotten man in Penn State's 2015 journey is John Johnson: the senior guard was suspended prior to the Indiana game for "conduct inconsistent with the team's standards". Not much has been said about the suspension that lasted the rest of the season, but his loss certainly didn't help the Lions ability to close out games. It seems many have quickly forgotten some of Flipp's late-game heroics in the Charleston Classic from earlier in the season. He could have been the needed complementary option to DJ Newbill in end-of-game situations, since he earlier proved himself capable in that role. While he didn't prevent the Michigan/Rutgers losses, they certainly weren't his fault after posting a 133 ORtg in his only three Big Ten games (per The program benefited from accelerating the development of guys like Devin Foster and Payton Banks in Flipp's prolonged absence, but it's hard to prove this team wasn't negatively affected by his suspension.

If you would have told me in December this team would be one buzzer-beater away from potentially finishing 3-15 in the Big Ten, I would have dismissed that notion immediately. Not many saw this team going 4-14. It seemed most reasonable forecasts pegged Penn State anywhere from a 5-7 Big Ten win team after the non-con. The Lions entered Big Ten play ranked #86 in KenPom with their win projection teetering back-and-forth between 6-12 and 7-11. They finished at #83 in KenPom, but with only a 6-15 record to show for it. Despite the fact that Penn State's -0.06 efficiency margin in conference play was its fifth best out of the last 16 seasons (and the best mark in Chambers four years), the Lions fell 2-3 wins short of their expected output. That's ultimately a poor reflection on the coaching job of Pat Chambers this season, because with 2-3 more wins, Penn State's playing in the NIT this week.

When the average success rate of scoring points consistently hovers around 50%, it seems like an unfair perspective to hold anyone completely accountable for every W/L outcome in their career.

An underwhelming performance in season four of an unproven coach's tenure immediately raises concerns over the job being done in today's sports world. This forces us to revisit the never-ending question of all employed coaches: Is so-and-so the right guy to lead so-and-so basketball? If you have followed along on the Basketbro podcasts this season, you will know that the collective stance of BSD on that question is yes for Pat Chambers. This is hard to fathom for many who only view the program through a W/L lens, but that's an incredibly short-sighted way of analyzing a super complex problem like turning Penn State basketball into a consistent winner (aka something that's never done in the history of mankind).

As I've consumed more and more college basketball in my relatively short life-span, and with the mainstream rise of advanced analytics and win probabilities, I find myself viewing the outcomes of this grand sport much like the outcomes of your typical game of Texas Hold 'Em Poker. It's far from a perfect comparison, but I do think the luck involved in basketball offers an applicable scenario. When the average success rate of scoring points consistently hovers around 50%, it seems like an unfair perspective to hold anyone completely accountable for every W/L outcome in their career.

In this unorthodox analogy, I assume the 'luck of the draw' is eliminated from the first four rounds of Hold 'Em and a team's potential winning hands are dependent on the job of the coach at that point. Recruiting is synonymous with the potential quality of one's starting hand, standard coaching tactics (effective practices, scouting/game preparation, individual player development) represent the Flop, 'X's & O's' or in-game coaching represents the Turn and the proverbial luck factor (bad calls, insane shooting performances, other oddities) represents the River. While it's been aggravating to watch Penn State lose some games on the River this year, it should not be an excuse for the entire season's results as they could just as easily have completed their winning hand on the Flop or Turn as well.

In basketball, recruiting is the name of today's game. Not that it wasn't decades prior, but today's digital world has placed a premium on recruiting the elite prospects in grassroots basketball. "Players win games" is a widespread mantra that will not be going away any time soon, and it's hard to argue when you see monster individual performances directly affect the outcomes of NBA and college games. For Penn State basketball, it's biggest failing historically has been its inability to recruit enough Big Ten-caliber basketball players, often bringing a 7-2 off-suit to the table against the pocket rockets of a Michigan State or Wisconsin. Chambers has already upped the standard in this department in impressive fashion, inking arguably the program's best class in the fall. This fact simply cannot be overlooked when evaluating the whole progress within the program.

It's impossible for coaches to increase the likelihood of better starting hands via player acquisitions during the year, but it's also true that players don't perform at the same level every game. Coaches unfortunately never know what hand they're going to be dealt with their team any given night, but it's safe to say with Kentucky's recruiting, Calipari is never working with anything less than a suited Ace-King off the bat. Penn State obviously doesn't have that luxury, nor is that a realistic expectation for this program. They had an invaluable asset in Newbill, who consistently was an Ace most nights, but guys like Brandon Taylor and Shep Garner weren't capable of being his King-Queen straight draw as often as they needed to be. Penn State's final hands were often Ace-high misses, and it left them susceptible to losing to a lucky pair of twos, none more evident than that pathetic Rutgers loss.

The flop is also a key moment in every round of Hold 'Em, and it's hard to say Pat has failed more often than not here, as well. I equate this part of the analogy to judging how well-prepared Pat's teams were to compete night in and night out. They certainly laid eggs in their two winnable road games - @ Rutgers and @ Northwestern - but for the most part, despite letdown after letdown, this team never threw in the towel and put forth their best effort in nearly every game. That's a sign of a great motivator, an invaluable trait of any successful head coach.

With improved recruiting and a coach consistently able to maximize the effort from his teams, Penn State has reached the Turn in a far better position than normal under past regimes. This is a credit to Pat Chambers' efforts thus far. While it is wise to wait on any potential roster shake-ups following this losing season before any proclamations of next year's squad are made, there's no reason to believe Penn State will lose ground here under Chambers' direction going forward if everyone does indeed return in 2016.

Where Pat has struggled in numerous close losses of the last two years is at the Turn. His in-game tactics have cost Penn State in the past with many gambles yielding unwanted and painful outcomes, like the botched #FoulUp3 maneuver versus the Boilermakers. Chambers will readily admit to his shortcomings in this area, but it's something he must improve on if this program is going to succeed under his leadership.

With that said, when five of the seven playable cards in any hand are comprised from the Draw/Flop, why would PSU prioritize the Turn as justification for a coach's dismissal at this point in the arduous process? Would a little more luck from the River this year in conference play really change your opinion of the coach from "fire" to "retain"? That's why I've never been able to see eye-to-eye with the "wins only matter" crowd. That just doesn't seem like a wise move when Penn State's odds are improving in more critical areas (recruiting). Also, with Philadelphia maintaining its support for his program (as evidenced by the continued interest from the city's best prospects in this program), why risk potential fallout and damaged relationships from that crucial community if you were to replace Pat with an outsider without established roots in the region?

Sandy Barbour is seemingly prepared to make an emphatic commitment to the fourth year head coach, so Chambers will be here in 2016. Some will remain steadfast in their criticism of a coach who has only won 23% of his Big Ten games after four seasons. But this program is not without hope (not even for next year, although that's still written in pencil) when you review all of the analytics. BSD will have plenty of postseason content to further elaborate on the prospects of next year's team, but one shouldn't ignore the progress made with Penn State's best defensive unit since the turn of the century or fret over replacing the most prolific scorer from the 3rd worst offense in the Big Ten.

Basketball teams are judged as a singular unit, similar to 5-card poker combinations. Chambers wasn't able to produce nearly enough winning Big Ten hands this season, but each new year offers a chance to reshuffle the deck and stack the odds in your favor. Perhaps a more balanced roster is what Penn State needs to yield better hands with more frequency next year (say shoot for trip-9's or 8-high straights), rather than hope to pair ten- and jack-quality players with Newbill's every day ace, since that failed horribly for Penn State's 2015 offense.