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Penn State Basketball: Nittany Lions Fall Again At Northwestern

by on March 07, 2020 6:40 PM

There is something fitting when it comes to the grand struggle of Penn State men's basketball that a historically good team — which has objectively had the most successful season in decades — seems so clearly destined to run headlong into disappointment, rendering so much of the team's accomplishments into bittersweet "almosts" for a fanbase that wants to enjoy a season which has become increasingly difficult to embrace.

The Nittany Lions have now lost five of their last six, an 80-69 defeat to lowly Northwestern on Saturday afternoon the final chapter in a regular season thats highest moments feel a lifetime away. An eight-game winning streak is so firmly part of the past that it is hard to remember which teams were coming out on the wrong end of Penn State's white-hot play.

On Saturday it was a script not unlike the previous seven games. Penn State showed moments of strength, erasing an early 14-point deficit to tie the contest at 34 by halftime. Myles Dread was efficient, Myreon Jones looked confident, and the supporting cast was present enough that it felt like a strong second half would be enough for Penn State to pick up its 22nd victory on the year.

But that never happened. The teams traded baskets, Lamar Stevens struggled yet again to the tune of 18 points on 5-of-20 shooting to put up numbers but not the required efficiency. Northwestern was just better, and 11 shots from deep on 22 attempts was more than enough to push out ahead of Penn State's inconsistent offensive attack and surprisingly porous defense.

Penn State had its moments, but 80-69 is the tale of the tape, 32% shooting all you need to know. Northwestern's near 50% shooting efficiency is just as telling.

The Nittany Lions played without Mike Watkins who was sidelined and did not travel with the team because of a violation of team rules. Watkins has now racked up enough suspensions that it becomes difficult to keep them all straight. John Harrar managed 12 points and 14 rebounds without much support in the paint for another admirable performance, one of the few Nittany Lions who has produced at a fairly consistent rate over the past few games.

At 21-10 the Nittany Lions finish the regular season 11-9 in Big Ten play, two games above the .500 mark that felt like a reasonable expectation for this team coming into the year. But winning changed things, eight-straight wins marked with road victories and blowouts changed the conversation. Big Ten title hopes were a real topic of weekly discussion among fans, Elite Eight appearances at Madison Square Garden a not so unreasonable dream for the program to have.

Then came the losing.

As such, it has been hard to see this season as anything other than what it has become: a team that peaked early, and a talented roster and staff that has not navigated the strategic ups and downs of the year. Be that execution or coaching, nothing that did work still worked, especially as first half leads turned into second half deficits, victories into defeats.

And in turn the Nittany Lions will head toward the postseason with none of the swagger that they once possessed and an even harder task to convince anyone that the confidence is still there to flip that script in time for a meaningful postseason run.

It is ironic that Penn State basketball was almost too good. If the Nittany Lions had been a bubble team, winning and losing games with more back and forth balance, a trip to the NCAA Tournament would feel like the accomplishment that it is. Then whatever happens, happens.

Instead, an NCAA Tournament appearance feels like something that is going to happen because of things that took place nearly a season ago. The Nittany Lions will make the trip, they will play, and they could advance. Whatever they do, it will be greeted by a fanbase drowned in an indifference for the sake of emotional self-preservation.

Why all of this has happened is a story for another day. The unavoidable truth is that Penn State will be in the NCAA Tournament and has the guns to make the run everyone was talking about a few months ago.

The question is if those guns will fire, and as things stand on March 7, it's hard to imagine that they will.

And if they can't fire them now, it makes one question if they ever will.

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