Penn State Basketball: Nittany Lions Stayed The Course And It Paid Off
Eleven days ago Penn State guard Tim Frazier dove on the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center for a loose ball.
Snatching it up, Frazier flicked a pass ahead to DJ Newbill who scored an easy basket.
As Frazier rose from the court, he pointed to the bench.
“Did you get that dive?” he asked, alluding to the team's internally kept "Attitude Stats" a metric that gives meaning to extra effort plays. Those are the kinds of plays that have helped Penn State close the gap between the bottom of the Big Ten and the various collection of Top 25 ranked elite of the conference. You may not always be more talented, but your effort is something you can always control.
The bench confirmed that it had seen the dive.
At its core, it's a play that has happened countless times over the three years of head coach Pat Chambers' tenure at Penn State. Players diving on the ground, giving a little bit extra, has become a staple of his teams. Opposing -- and often winning -- coaches have been praising Penn State's effort after almost every game with an honesty that goes beyond coaching platitudes.
Frazier's play didn't come during practice. It didn't come early in a blowout victory. It came in the final minutes of Penn State's first conference win of the season after starting the year 0-6 in Big Ten play.
Just about every season, Penn State basketball stands at a crossroad. Right the ship or abandon it? It's the same choice any growing program has to make on more than one occasion. No matter how good the plan may be, something will try and turn it on its head. How you respond is what determines your ability to succeed. This season's speed bump included three losses in conference play by three or fewer points.
And that's what makes Frazier's dive a noteworthy moment in Penn State's 2013-14 season. Frazier is a captain, a veteran who's expected to make those plays. With Penn State now sitting on a three game winning streak it has become apparent that he's not the only one choosing to right the ship. Frazier's dive was a symbolic gesture that even in the wake of multiple -- and often last minute -- losses the team hadn't forgotten it's identity.
"We were 0-6 a couple weeks ago," Chambers said after Penn State's victory over Purdue on Sunday. "What these kids have done to turn this around is just kept working, kept digging, kept getting better and they really just bought into what we’re doing with each other. And it looks like they are really playing for each other."
"That Purdue game was devastating, I gotta tell you. I give these kids a lot of credit for staying the course, because it could have gotten really ugly. It could have been a perfect storm. And they just kept plugging away," Chambers said. "We stayed positive and we looked at our mistakes and looked at what we needed to do a better job in."
"We have a good bunch, we have good heads and we have uncharted waters right now because we haven’t won three games in a long time, so it’s going to be interesting to see how they react and how we come back to work tomorrow."
"They believe in themselves and they have faith in one another and they just want to go out there and compete and get better. If that is our mantra, compete and get better, you're going to put yourself in a great situation to win a lot of games."
The irony is that many fans and casual observers don't see it that way. Tweets fly about Chambers' inability to do X,Y, or Z -- almost all of them related to winning or basketball strategy. The true accomplishment at this point is Chambers' ability to get his team within reach of victories. The gap between Penn State and the top of the conference is closing slowly but surely. While Penn State fans may have been frustrated with the idea of losing, Chambers has gotten Penn State closer to the point where winning is possible. That itself is a victory for the program.
The feat is even more impressive considering that Chambers inherited the nation's 290th least experienced team just over two years ago. The departure of Ed DeChellis and his upperclassmen heavy team is not something that's overcome in a single season.
The fact that his team is trying hard doesn't clear Chambers of any and all blame on any given night. To judge Penn State's success based on just wins or losses grossly over simplifies the obstacles the program has been facing. Recruiting has improved, but doesn't change in a single summer, and there is nothing you can do about trying to build a program up in the toughest conference in America. Those aren't excuses, they're just facts.
"We've been through a lot. A lot of losses at the end of games and wins at the end of games, I think it's up in the air. I think that was good for us. We're going to continue to get better and I think we've learned how to finish out in close games." Frazier said Sunday.
So the Nittany Lions stay the course.
And that's what Penn State should continue to do, because it has gotten them this far. Progress is difficult to quantify in sports, but the Nittany Lions have made progress.
Penn State *could* be a six win team but they're "only" a three win team in conference. Either way, it's directly related to the team's willingness -- and Chambers ability to get them -- to buy into each other. The maturation of a team over the span of 125 minutes has taken the Nittany Lions from the "Almost There" gang to the "Told You So's".
While Nebraska came off an emotional victory Penn State was looking for its first one. While Ohio State was trying to figure out what happened to a former Top 5 team Penn State was making big plays down the stretch. And while Purdue was trying to find chemistry, Penn State was realizing that maybe winning wasn't all so impossible after all.
How far Penn State can go is still up in the air. With nine regular season games left on the schedule there is a lot of basketball left to be played. The Nittany Lions have figured out how to win though and that's often half the battle.
It may not mean anything for the remainder of this season, but the program's ship is floating and headed in the right direction.
And that's all Penn State fans can really ask for.