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The Seeds of Penn State Basketball's Current Success Were Sown a Year Ago

by on February 20, 2020 5:00 AM


When the poetry of the 2019-20 Penn State Basketball season is finally completed and written for future generations, it must begin with the prose of the 2018-19 season as the starting point.

With Penn State men’s basketball surging into Big Ten title contention and the national spotlight, coach Patrick Chambers is rightfully getting a lot of praise for the job he has done this year. But as fine a job as the Penn State basketball staff has done this year, they set the foundations last year.

To appreciate the present and see the future one must understand the past.

Two years ago, despite sweeping three games against ranked Ohio State and a 21-13 record they were left on the outside looking in at the NCAA tournament.  Rather than wallow in what they’d missed they won the NIT championship, beating their opponents by an average of over 10 points. 

The fates looked to be aligning for an NCAA tournament run in 2018-19. But after Tony Carr left early the chemistry at the start of the next season was lagging. The team started 0-10 in the Big Ten, the 10th loss coming in overtime to No. 12 Purdue.

For many all looked lost….. 

But it is in those moments where you find out what kind of coach you truly are. It would’ve been easy for the players to stop caring, to just go through the motions and play out the year. It would’ve been understandable if the players lost focus and started to look for the exits.

But in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “When it is dark enough, you can see the stars.”

What fuels a surge when you’re down and people you looked to for help have walked away and left you for dead? It is pride. It is a relentless attitude. It is the ability to work and fight and claw when no one is watching, when no one believes in you anymore.

Anyone that knows Pat Chambers, the coaches and players understand their toughness and how they’ve had to fight for everything. And every bump in this road takes its toll on coaches and their families too. But they kept the faith and believed in what could be.

In that darkness, the stars started to shine for Penn State. One by one, this team started to get up. They climbed step by step, showing a steely resolve to change the course of a team and a program.

This coaching staff did a miraculous job of keeping this team locked in, of always turning their focus to the next practice, the next game. The chemistry between the older guys and young guys developed. Lamar Stevens played like a man on a mission willing his team to win after win. 

Surprising everyone but those inside the program and the few true believers that remained they won seven of their last 10 games. That run included a win over No. 6 Michigan and a 17-point win over No. 17 Maryland.

They coached young men to become better people on and off the court. Mike Watkins is an example of why college coaches matter. Mike will be a Penn State graduate because of loyalty. Society always wants coaches to run players off when they struggle and that’s the easy way out for a coach. But the real work of coaching requires you to save ones who need it most.

So last year’s late-season run was the start. The stars in the darkness guided the journeyers toward dawn’s horizon this season. Now with a record of 20-6, a national ranking and a date with March Madness looming, dawn has given way to radiant sunshine.

Despite Tuesday night’s tough loss, Penn State is one of the national stories of the year in college basketball. Lamar Stevens may not be the best player in the country, but name me a guy who has done more for a team and a program than he has. He came to Penn State and took a chance on a coach who could only sell him on a vision. And he got others to join him.

The people who effect change always have an ability to see things beyond the limits of what is visible. This year you are seeing the convergence of belief, hard work and vision.

For Penn State basketball fans, keep climbing to that summit the rest of this season. There are views there you’ve only imagined in your dreams. With just weeks to go the climb will soon be over for this year’s team. Already it’s been a great year, but no doubt this team and these coaches are focused not on what has been but what will be.



State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at
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