Penn State Basketball: Pat Chambers Is Planting The Seeds Of Success
As the final buzzer sounded, the crowd inside Madison Square Garden stood on its feet applauding a Nittany Lions team that had gone from just missing the NCAA Tournament to winning an NIT championship. Thousands clad in white made the trip to New York City to take in a great game on basketball's most hallowed court. They stood singing and cheering as players ascended a ladder to cut down their portion of the net. Perhaps the implications of an NIT title would not be felt as much as many of the storied NBA games to have been played there, but nevertheless, the magic was all the same.
A 69-63 victory over the Baylor Bears signaled the end of a season that could in many ways have been the greatest in Penn State's history. Penn State's 27 wins marked the highest total in school history, and as the crowd slowly exited the shallow bowl of The Garden, Talor Battle's half-brother and highly touted recruit Taran Buie committed to play for the Nittany Lions the very next season. The year couldn't have ended any better. Penn State basketball had made it over the hump.
But it was a flash in the pan.
Penn State basketball fans will always debate Ed DeChellis' legacy. Some will tell you that he rode on the success of Battle. Others will note that the program had been left in disarray when he took over for Jerry Dunn. In the end, it is truly a mixture of the two, success from a handful of outstanding players that helped a coach pull a program back to serviceable levels.
In many ways the NIT title represented the height of DeChellis' potential. The NCAA run two years later was a nice conclusion to a class of seniors who had stuck it out, but there was no real promise that the program was clearly headed forward after their departure. Each loss under DeChellis felt as though it was an inevitable result, and while no player wanted to accept defeat, it was just a way of life as a Nittany Lion.
But things have changed.
As of the Tuesday, Penn State sits at 9-8 with a 1-3 record in conference. If you haven't watched Penn State play it would be easy to dismiss this off as yet another team being used as a doormat for the rest of the Big Ten conference. Nobody would blame you, but that wouldn't mean you were right.
New head coach Pat Chambers has changed the attitude around the program. His constant use of the word "attitude" itself makes it somewhat cliche to even use, but it truly represents the fundamental difference between Chambers and almost every coach to have held the job at Penn State: Losing is not an option.
"We have to continue to get these guys better. And we have to continue to change the mentality that losing is not acceptable, it will never be acceptable," Chambers said after the loss to Indiana. "There are no moral victories. I know this is cliché, but it gets contagious. `Oh we lost, you played hard. Oh we lost, you played hard.' That's got to end. You play hard, you win, you compete. But, if we compete for 40 minutes and we do all the little things and we play hard, you give yourself a chance. And all I want is a chance."
Kobe Bryant said in his Spike Lee film "Kobe Doin' Work" that "basketball is a game of execution, you aren't trying to trick other teams. They've seen the film and know what you're going to run. It's about doing it better than the other guy."
That quote has epitomized the early run of the Chambers era, especially the past two games in which the Nittany Lions clobbered a talented Purdue team by 20 points, and only narrowly lost to 12th-ranked Indiana in a game they very well could have won. Chambers has been pulling and pushing each of his players closer and closer to their full potential. What he lacks in star power, he has made up for it with effective execution and hard work.
It's that kind of attitude that could bring real change to Penn State basketball.
You can feel it in the stands. Every year a big crowd will come out to the cavernous Bryce Jordan Center for a matchup against a ranked team. Most of the time it's to see the other team's players in action, and while the building might be full, the energy isn't there.
However, as Chambers' players have bought in to his system of effort and energy, so have the fans. This past Sunday a crowd of 8,000-plus got into the game many times, even yelling at Indiana coach Tom Crean, something unusual for a usually dormant crowd at the game. The excitement is slowly but surely finding its way out of practice and into the stands.
In the end, there is no telling how the 2011-12 basketball season will pan out. At some point Penn State's effort will not be enough to tackle its own youth and the skills of some of the nation's best teams. Even so, there seems little doubt that the seeds Pat Chambers is planting will yield anything short of a winning and successful program.