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Penn State Basketball: Progress Under Chambers More Than Meets The Eye

by on February 12, 2014 9:20 AM
prog·ress
noun
 ˈprägrəs,ˈprägˌres,ˈprōˌgres/
  • forward or onward movement toward a destination.

Beyond the conventional definition, progress isn't easily defined.

The word is even harder to define in the sporting world as it becomes tangled within the definition of personal expectations. What may truly be defined as progress in the conventional sense may not fit the criteria of sufficient progress for a sports fan. That's just how things work.

When it comes to the Penn State basketball team, defining progress hasn't been easy as head coach Patrick Chambers now has almost-three seasons under his belt. This season, the Nittany Lions look to improve on the three conference wins they have so far, but some fans have begun to question whether Chambers has made any progress. Some fans have even put Chambers on their personal "hot seat." Has the team made progress under Chambers? It's a fair question to ask but a harder one to answer.

It's not difficult to see what the 2014 edition of Penn State basketball represents to an outside observer. It's another season at the bottom of the conference without any real headline grabbing signs of that changing in the future. You may be excused for feeling like you've seen this movie before.

That's something the program has to deal with as it grows. Progress is not always made where the public can see it. Sports might be all about "what have you done for me lately?" but that can't be the only factor used to define progress internally.

From a personal perspective, the role of a beat writer puts you behind the scenes about as much as anyone, aside from those whose bills are paid by Penn State athletics. You don't see everything, nor are the opinions of a beat writer so set in truth that they are untouchable. But you see and hear enough to get a pretty good picture of the program's condition.

So what's the state of the union in Pat Chambers' third year? Here's my best assessment.

Waiting For The "Yes":

Recruiting is a circular problem. To get better recruits you have to win with what you've got. In the nation's best conference it isn't as though winning is a walk in the park. So you keep grinding away, hoping you can land a prospect that goes against conventional wisdom and takes a chance with the program. All while you keep trying to win with what's in the cupboard.

Former Butler star Gordon Hayward is a good example of a player who took a chance on a program (Butler) and a head coach (Brad Stevens) despite interest from other programs.

Late in Hayward's recruitment process, Purdue and many other schools came calling and Stevens was still able to land the player that would later help the program to the national title game. Stevens recruited Hayward before he was ever on the national radar and banked on that relationship winning Hayward over in the long term. Rather than chase the big fish, Stevens put his eggs in the basket of a player whose future at the time was far less certain.

In some ways Penn State has to go a similar route. Elite players can occasionally be attracted to smaller programs in the Big Ten for the level of competition, but Penn State will improve by recruiting blossoming players rather than players who are already being chased after by far more established teams. Penn State's failure to bring in top talent isn't because it hasn't occurred to anyone that more talented players might. Penn State hasn't brought in top talent because 95 percent of the time that's impossible to do. There is no real recruiting base, a huge and usually empty arena coupled with a half-invested fan base. Penn State needs to find its Gordon Haywards more than it needs its Andrew Wigginses*

It's clearly too early to call (not yet enrolled) commits Shep Garner, Isaiah Washington, and Mike Watkins the next coming of Hayward, but Penn State recruited these players based on who they could become -- not who they are right now. and we may not find out how good they truly for years. Would a "big name" coach attract recruits by name alone? Sure. But that is not a luxury Penn State has nor a necessity for Penn State to succeed. 

*That being said a big "yes" would be a big help. And bigger name recruits are taking the time to listen rather than simply turn away laughing.

The Gap Is Closing:

"It's this much, not this much," Chambers said taking this thumb and forefinger from an inch apart to a half inch. The illustration showing the margin for error Penn State has during any given Big Ten game if they want to win.

"The gap used to be like this," Chambers had said on a different occasion, holding his hands wide apart from the ground up. "And now it's more like this," He said as he closed the gap between his top and bottom hands. A separate illustration displaying the changing disparity of talent between Penn State (on average) and the top of the conference. A closing gap.

And he's right.

Penn State is in a unique place right now. The Nittany Lions are good enough to be in every game aside from the occasional blowout by a team at the top of the conference. But they are far from a point where they can single-handedly compensate for mistakes with talent alone.

It makes for a precarious perch to sit on. Play an almost perfect game and you might win -- make enough mistakes and it's all over. On any given night some of that is coaching, some of that is talent and some of that is the opposition. All of it together places Penn State with an uphill climb each night hoping that a slip-up doesn't make the rest of the game a formality.

Well are they getting closer to winning? Closer to getting over a hump?

Under Ed DeChellis, Penn State fell in 25 games by two or fewer possessions in a total of 8 years and lost on average in conference play by 14.05 points per contest.

Under Chambers, Penn State has lost 12 games by two possessions or less in just under three seasons at the helm. Chambers' teams lose in Big Ten games on average by 11.5 points.

One may say Chambers' teams have failed to finish the job in close games which is fair. But it is also true the gap between winning and losing is far smaller than it has been in past years. Penn State loses by fewer points and comes closer to winning far more often. 31% of the games coached under Chambers have been lost by two or fewer possessions. That's a full 5% better than DeChellis' average.

Simply put, Penn State is coming closer to winning far more often and losing games by fewer points in the process. It's a backwards display of progress, but as the losses come by fewer and fewer points wins should also become more and more common. 

Winning a close game is a far different challenge and hurdle than not even being in a close game to begin with. The fact the Nittany Lions are losing close games is an achievement in itself given some of the less than glamorous box scores to grace the pages of the media guide.

Chambers Is Bill O'Brien:

Bill O'Brien was significant because (among a lot of other reasons) he wasn't a Penn State person. He didn't have direct ties to the program. Neither did Chambers. He is in fact the first coach since Bruce Parkhill, who was hired in 1983, to not have been a part of the Parkhill coaching tree. Jerry Dunn was an assistant under Parkhill and so was DeChellis. It's three decades of the same coaching family.

So there is a lot you can change with a new approach. Penn State recruits the Philadelphia area unlike ever before. The Jordan Center has basketball signage on the outside of the arena, the weight room is in better shape, the program is a greater presence in the community. They're little things, but they're the same kinds of changes to the structure of the program O'Brien made after inheriting a program that did things "a certain kind of way."

Year 1 Attempt 3:

Pat Chambers inherited the remains of a roster that was left behind after the 34th most experienced team in the nation graduated. As a result, the 2012 season was a roster ranked the 290th most "experienced" team in the country, still winning four games in conference play.

In Chambers' second season Frazier's injury hijacked the 2012 campaign and the Nittany Lions managed to upset national runner-up Michigan after losing 14 straight. That's not how it was drawn up in the huddle but it is an indication that the Nittany Lions certainly hadn't lost sight of what kind of team they were trying to be.

So in many respects the 2014 season is the first full season Chambers has had with a team with enough talent and experience to get close to winning games. Considering that the Nittany Lions have won three conference games and fallen in four more by 1,3,3, and 5 points, it's not as though they are far from getting over the hump.

Add in the fact that the majority of Chambers' recruits have yet to arrive at campus or play out their careers at Penn State, it's simply too early to make a broad assessment on the recruiting ability of the program.

The State Of The Union:

Chambers would be the first one to tell you he and his players aren't happy about how this season has gone. Close losses aren't fun even if being in a position to win is a significant change of pace. In total though, it's impossible to deny that program is making progress. Where it's headed remains to be seen and how fast it will progress is an unknown, but the Penn State men's basketball program is moving forward.

Certainly every fan is entitled to an opinion. Some will demand that Penn State match James Franklin's contract for the basketball program and that a "bad" Penn State basketball program isn't acceptable. It's my personal opinion that barring undeniable failure it's far to early to truly judge a coach's tenure at a program like Penn State less than three years into what should be a 6 to 8 year "renovation". I wrote this because I get asked on a regular basis what I think of the Penn State basketball program and if Pat Chambers is in danger of being fired or that he should be soon. By my estimation he isn't, and shouldn't be.

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Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for StateCollege.com. He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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