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Checking The Basketball Rankings And Feeding the Sherpas

The Penn State basketball program has reached rarefied air.

The Porters of Everest Photo by John van Hasselt/Corbis via Getty Images

The Associated Press Top-25 college basketball poll will come out today, as it does each Monday morning. Until a few weeks ago it had been a couple of decades since the list included the Nittany Lions. It is a great honor, a type of symbolic recognition, to make the poll for a program that has worked hard to gain national relevance.

That is all that the AP poll represents; there are no significant impacts other than good vibes and a little bit of publicity. The selection committee will not use the AP poll to guide its decision on which teams will make the NCAA Tournament field, they will use the Net Rankings. The Lions have been in the top-20 of the Net Rankings since they were released a few weeks ago.

The team has yet to break the top-20 in the AP poll but at this point that doesn’t matter. We reported the somewhat historic news that the team made the list a few weeks ago but moving forward it will be an afterthought.

While watching the team hover inside the top-20 in the Net Rankings, which are updated every day until the end of the conference tournaments are over, we should remember what matters most.

Penn State could very well win the Big Ten tournament and garner one of the 32 available automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. Otherwise, there will be 36 at-large teams awarded bids, so as we track the Net Rankings, the number to watch is somewhere in the 30’s.

While we all hope the Lions will continue to climb all the way to No. 1 in the Net Rankings, or hold roughly the spot that they are in now, as long as the team remains in the top-30 it is a lock to make the field. So scan the rankings, get amused by the polls, but don’t worry too much about the tournament unless the team slides into the mid-30’s.

There will be no need to white-knuckle the rankings if the Lions can keep winning. With seventeen conference battles remaining before the Big Ten Tournament, there are a couple of months worth of games to take in. Enjoy each one as much as possible along the way.

New Sherpas In Town, Same Sheriff

Penn State has labeled its ascension as a basketball program The Climb, and the team has encouraged its fans to come along for the climb for a few years now.

Many fans can remember when Pat Chambers, a Philly guy, claimed that he would be able to bring in talent from that talent-rich area. Some people scoffed and reminded others that all coaches from Penn State have tried, but few succeeded, in tapping that area’s talent. That was nearly a decade ago. Since then Chambers has built the pipeline and players have come streaming through to State College from Philadelphia. No one doubts that ambition of Chambers’ now.

The depth of the roster is its strength this season and though it is scary to think about losing Lamar Stevens, Mike Watkins, and Curtis Jones, there is a future for the team. With Izaiah Brockington, Myreon Jones, Myles Dread, Jamari Wheeler, John Harrar and Seth Lundy, there will be battle-tested players returning. Other players will join the team, some known now and some, like Curtis Jones, that will likely join between now and next season.

With the quantifiable success in recruiting dating back to when Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens decided to join Mike Watkins at Penn State five years ago added to the NIT Championship and NCAA Tournament push in 2018, there was a noticeable spike in the fortunes of the Penn State basketball program. Last season’s 14-18 record, at first glance, looked like a major step back. With a closer look, the team finished in the top-50 of the Net Rankings.

The team was not that far from success last season and had a chance late to string a few wins together to make a case for the post-season. That was in a year that saw the team send its first player to the NBA Draft this century. Tony Carr’s decision to leave Happy Valley after two seasons was both good for the program and the main reason it didn’t make an NCAA Tournament appearance last year. Tony Carr was a great college basketball player and the team lacked back court depth and experience a year ago.

That brings us to this season, which is getting national attention. From coast to coast college basketball fans can see that Penn State is indeed climbing as a program. The success is no longer noticeable to just those in the Penn State sphere, or coaches, players and fans around the Big Ten. The Lions are getting acknowledgement from all directions and clearly it is deserved.

With a strong finish to this season there will be a clear upward line on any chart that gauges the tenure of Pat Chambers in Happy Valley, starting truly before Carr, Stevens and Watkins arrived. The work began on the recruiting trail and we are seeing it pay off on the court.

There have been fans along the way during the climb that have lost patience at times with the coach and team. While some lingering lack of support for coach Chambers may exist, it has been pushed to the back burner for now. There are many great Penn State basketball fans, that are as loyal as any of us, that at one point or another made the declaration that the team should have a new coach.

We may have those conversations again some day, maybe not. Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins have each publicly stated that the coach, the fans of the program, along with the love of their fellow players, were major reasons for returning. Before the game against Iowa, Stevens gave an interview in which he mentioned his desire to bring the success on the court this year to the Penn State basketball fans.

There are thousands of die-hard fans that have survived the program’s hardships and remain enthusiastic. Those fans have always wanted one thing for the team and its players: more fans. With the success this season the team is getting attention that it normally wouldn’t, not just around the country, but also from fans of Penn State Athletics.

So many of us have served as the saddest Sherpas in recent times, standing alongside the team as they made the difficult climb. Now there is an influx of support and the company is not just welcomed by we hardened fans; it has been on our wish list for years. Most of us wanted nothing more than to share this type of positive feeling with others and to have the team see greater support in the stands.

Make no mistake, the noise can help the team win, just as it does inside Beaver Stadium. The general attention will put a spring in the team’s step and make it easier for them to overcome the flu, tough school work, and bumps and bruises that come while being a student-athlete.

It’s going to be a fun ride for the next few months. In the past, Penn State fans have remembered seasons which the team made the NCAA Tournament, recounting them, once per decade, with fondness and a sense of nostalgia. We may look back at this tournament run as being the start of a great decade for Penn State basketball.