In our last entry in the basketball portion of our series, we take a look at Penn State’s current head coach’s , Pat Chambers. Let’s start by getting a few things out of the way first.
Touched on briefly over the series, Penn State hasn't been known for its investment in the basketball program over the years. Having a football program perform so well on the cheap meant that the administration would look to replicate the magic with basketball, which led to mediocre results at best, and disaster at the worst.
Chris showed you what could have been had the magic formula worked. Tim brought to light how bad things really got when Penn State’s reality surfaced. Aaron told the story of how much effort it took to get back to mediocrity. And now, it’s time do discuss Penn State’s time in purgatory.
Establishing a Pattern
The charts above showcase each coach’s wins plotted against the SOS* rank for that season.** A few immediate observations:
- Ed DeChellis and Pat Chambers (so far) have played the toughest schedules in the 25-year history, both having played a season with a top ten SOS. Bruce Parkhill’s schedules were far worse than the rest (by virtue of playing the bulk of his career in the Atlantic Ten).
- Every coach except Jerry Dunn had an upward trajectory in terms of wins. Yet, Dunn was the only coach to have taken the Nittany Lions to more than one NCAA tournament appearance.
- Chambers is the only coach (so far) to have avoided a season with single-digit wins.
- Parkhill’s toughest season was still ranked lower than each of the other coaches’ toughest seasons. He also won less games than everyone else in his toughest season.
With that little bit of background information out of the way, let’s get into the era.
Part 1: The Exodus
Chambers was officially hired at Penn State on June 3rd, 2011. At that time, he inherited a roster of Tim Frazier, who would become a solid NBA backup point guard, Sasa Borovnjak, who would forge a professional career in his native country, Trey Lewis, who would forge himself a good college basketball career, along with Matt Glover, Billy Oliver, Jermaine Marshall, Pat Ackerman, and Ross Travis.
By the end of his first season, half of those players would be gone from the program. By the end of his second, only Tim Frazier and Ross Travis would still be wearing the Blue and White.
In his first two years as a coach, the program faced so many transfers that the roster wouldn’t see stability until his fourth season, when the number of transfers, was reduced to one.
Making matters worse, Chambers had to opt for lower-than expected recruiting classes just to have bodies available, who would also contribute to the mass exodus of his early years. Chambers brought in guys like Akosa Maduegbunam and Graham Woodward, who would have been nice depth additions under normal circumstances, to shoulder a bulk of the weight. As expected, things wouldn’t work out with these players and they’d end up leaving the program after just one season.
Part 2: The Hardships
Compounding the transfers was IT happening mere months after the coach was hired, which put a mark on Penn State athletics as a whole. Recruiting at Penn State was already tough for basketball, and being in the news for all the wrong reasons made it that much tougher.
On the court, Penn State would find themselves getting tough break after tough break with his players. Borovnjak, after finally turning his game around, decided to go pro. Oliver has to quit basketball due to continued head injuries. Frazier is out for a season with a torn achilles. Marshall decides to go pro, but not really just kidding, and instead transfers out of the program. Geno Thorpe has irreconcilable differences with the staff, and transfers out of the program. John Johnson gets suspended and doesn’t come back.
Every time Chambers thinks he’s taken a step forward, a random event forces the team to take two steps back.
Part 3: The Misses
Chamber’s trajectory with the Lions isn’t as different as other coaches who have inherited a rebuilding project. He’s established relationships with local high schools, convinced decent players to come play for a losing program and get immediate playing time, then convinced better players to help the program make history.
The difference with Chambers is that it’s taken a lot longer to finish this process than at other peer programs. You can thank some of the factors mentioned above for that, but the other side of the coin is Chambers’ own misses in recruiting. Guys like Brandon Austin***, Josh Hart, and Sheldon Jeter would have made a big difference in expediting the process. As it turned out, all decided to go to different programs, which left Chambers with some of the choices outlined above, as well as others who took longer to blossom.
Part 4: The Process
Once Chambers finally got his rough start out of the way, you could start to see what his vision for the program was. The group of misfits he brought to play for him were starting to come of age.
Tim Frazier, went from being a guy who saw limited time in his first season (due to backing up one of the best to ever wear a Penn State uniform), to doing this:
Brandon Taylor, a guy who most thought wasn’t a division 1 athlete in his first year, improved so much that he was named to the third team All Big Ten when it was all said and done. He also did this:
And most importantly, D.J Newbill, a guy who, for reasons out of his control, saw himself at Southern Miss, actually believed in what Chambers was selling, and made the trip back to Pennsylvania so he could do this:
Part 5: The Future
Once D.J. Newbill came to Penn State, a door that was completely shut finally opened up for the Nittany Lions. Players finally began to listen to Chambers’s message, and recruits who would normally hang up after hearing who was on the phone were actually committing to the program. Penn State’s core of players —Josh Reaves, Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins, and Shep Garner— is the best Penn State has seen since the Crispin brothers, and combined with a depth core of Julian Moore, Nazeer Bostick, Satchel Pierce, Deividas Zemgulis, and the recent additions of Jamari Wheeler, John Harrar, and Trent Buttrick, Penn State will have arguably its most talented roster in school history.
The Nittany Lions have spent the past three seasons in basketball purgatory, trying to get the right combination of talent and experience to compete with the top of the Big Ten. They’ve been close all three years. Excruciatingly close at times. In the past three seasons, 42 points (an average of 3.23 per season) have been the difference between an NCAA bubble team and one with no postseason at all. Now, Chambers finally has that combination of talent and experience necessary to compete. And, while the conference around him isn’t getting any weaker (in fact, it may once again be in the top two in the country next season), the Nittany Lions will finally have the combination to turn more of those close losses into wins.
Chambers has also opened up an assistant coaching position, looking for talent outside of what he’s worked with for basically all of his career. This move is not too dissimilar from what the coach across the street did when he brought a guy by the name of Joe Moorhead in, hoping to breathe some life into a stagnant offense.
The roster is in place. The search for an assistant that can help him is in place. All that’s left is to put it all together.
For all of Chambers’s small victories so far in his tenure —forcing the athletic department to take the basketball program seriously, upgrading the overall talent of the team, making Penn State not be the laughing stock of the recruiting world, he still hasn’t accomplished what he set to do when he was hired. He has yet to take the Nittany Lions to any meaningful postseason (no, the CBI doesn't count), and has exactly one winning season with the program. That record, when stacked against his predecessors, leaves a lot to be desired.
Pat Chambers, however, has one thing that the other coaches no longer have: His tenure as the Penn State coach isn’t written in stone yet. He has at least one more year to turn his time as the Nittany Lion coach around. Let’s see what he does with his opportunity.
*SOS ranks taken from sports-reference, since Kenpom doesn’t span as far back.
**Due to the number of division 1 teams being different each era, the SOS rankings are slightly skewed in favor of the older coaches.
***And maybe it was a good thing he missed on this particular recruit after all.