Year after year, time after time, conversations revolved around how long it would take to see the kind of team we were promised back in 2011. So many “close, but no cigar” moments made cynics out of even the most optimistic fans in this corner of the world. “The experiment failed,” people claimed*, after the Nittany Lions had lost 10 conference games in a row last season. Hope was lost among the majority of the fanbase, a base hungry to enjoy what so many other teams** of the same caliber had been able to achieve. People just wanted to enjoy a good basketball team, and they didn’t care how it got there.
Suddenly, something happened. The team started winning, and they started winning a lot. A 0-10 start turned into a 7-3 finish. The Lions were beating teams indiscriminately, not taking things like ranking, stature, arena, or anything in between, into consideration. They finished the season as one of the hottest teams in the conference, and suddenly there was this air of anticipation as that season ended and another one began.
Fast forward a year, and we’re witnessing something almost unprecedented in the history of Penn State basketball. The Nittany Lions have compiled a team that not only competes, but actually wins. A setback that cast doubt into the team’s ability to compete back in November, when they blew a 20-point lead to lose to Ole Miss in the NIT Tipoff. They responded by beating Syracuse by a similar margin as they had the day before. The moved right along until they opened Big Ten play, where they were humbled by an Ohio State team firing on all cylinders at the time. They responded by beating Maryland in their next game. They then had the infamous three-game losing streak, the one that convinced us all that this team wasn’t any different than the ones before it. They responded by winning seven consecutive contests, beating Michigan on the road, Michigan State on the road, and Purdue on the road. The Nittany Lions are the only team who can claim that accomplishment in a very long time.
Penn State sits at 9-4 in conference play, good for second in the Big Ten. The aforementioned Maryland team sits at first, one game ahead of the Nittany Lions. And here’s the difference. This Nittany Lions team does have one attribute from seasons past. This team is playing their best basketball of the season in February. In the past two seasons, their February resurgence happened because they needed to turn their season around. Before that, February play was simply a glimmer of hope; the sign that maybe the slow, but steady approach would one day lead to results. This season, there is no turn around. February play is about establishing themselves as one of, if not the best team in the conference. February play is about telling the rest of the country that the experiment worked, that patience is indeed a virtue, and that good things do come to those who wait.
When Pat Chambers gave his usual press conference after beating the Michigan State Spartans on the road, he mentioned that he wanted to build a team like Tom Izzo had at Michigan State. It’s quite funny that their arrival then came against Spartans, the confirmation that this team was not going to back down and instead would impose its will on folks. It’s even funnier when you think back to four years ago, when that same Penn State coach was standing, angrily, defending his program and just about promising no no longer be the butt of everyone’s jokes.
Four years ago in the Breslin Center: "We're trying to change. We're trying to buck the system of being the brunt of everybody's jokes" -Pat Chambershttps://t.co/u6CL1Q9HR3— Eric (@RLR_Eric) February 5, 2020
Back then, Izzo defended Pat, recalling how difficult it was for him to establish Michigan State as the powerhouse it would become, and you could tell his words were genuine.
Today, we can confidently say Penn State has gotten one step closer to where they want to be. We the fans get to enjoy what fans of many other teams have enjoyed for so long. We get to root for a team that wins more than it loses, a team that people find little fault with; we get to watch a game and know, from the bottom of our hearts, that their best effort is good enough.
This is what we’ve been waiting for.
*”People” is me. I claimed it.
**More on this after the season.