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Penn State Basketball: Rutgers Loss Magnifies The Challenge Of Growing Program

by on February 04, 2017 5:50 PM

With 11 seconds to go Josh Reaves sank a deep three that pulled Penn State within just a point of Rutgers, a 69-68 margin that all but erased the Nittany Lions' double-digit deficit just minutes earlier. It was a 15-6 run to close out the game.

But it wasn't enough.

With time running off the clock Tony Carr's drive into the lane found the glass but nothing more and Penn State stumbled off the court on the losing end of a second straight heartbreaker. Days earlier it was a triple-overtime loss at Indiana, and on Saturday it was a last minute comeback falling inches short of redemption. 

How the game played out is somewhat inconsequential compared to the fallout. The Nittany Lions shot poorly, failed to rebound and had an inspired effort by Shep Garner to thank for even being close at the half. Penn State would in total make two shots from inside the arc in the opening 20 minutes of play, somehow trailing by just six at the break.

The second half was essentially more of the same. Missed shots, poor rebounding and a feisty Rutgers team that looked like what Penn State fans have expected from their Nittany Lions in years prior. Scrappy and making up for a lack of talent with a surplus of effort.

So it wasn't a surprise to see Penn State coach Pat Chambers' name float around the web as the clock expired and Penn State fell yet again in a close contest. National writers raised an eyebrow and local fans shook their head as the status quo of close losses continued to feel less like a slow march toward victory but rather a race toward something far more stagnant. All of this was seemingly magnified as Northwestern sits poised for its first ever NCAA tournament bid -- the bright lights of hope and a promising future dimming on the Bryce Jordan Center and slowly shifting towards Chicago.

The question now is what happens next.

Aside from the fact Penn State as an institution rarely fires head coaches, there is little reason to think that doing so in this case at the season's end is a smart or productive decision on multiple fronts.

For one, it's not hard to argue that Penn State has made substantial progress under Chambers. Penn State basketball has waited its entire existence to be relevant in Philadelphia recruiting and has become a viable option for any talent coming out of that basketball hotbed. Even in the wake of Villanova's national title it's Penn State still pulling as hard as anyone on the ears of some of the nation's best. 

Within the program it's difficult to adequately state how much has improved behind the scenes and how much the program lacked the proper support in years prior. That has changed, in no small part thank to Chambers' aggressive lobbying.

Financially, Penn State sits weeks away from announcing its renovation project for Beaver Stadium and the athletic department at large, and what figures to be an enormous price tag attached to it. This is the same athletic department that is only just breaking even in the wake of NCAA fines and what is probable to become an even larger series of paychecks for James Franklin and his staff. Penn State basketball is one of three programs generating a positive cash flow for the department. It seems unlikely that a multimillion dollar contract for a college basketball coach would be prudent in that environment. If big time donors are waiting in the woodwork for a good hoops program, they certainly haven't shown their faces.

This means that if Penn State were, by some bizarre twist of fate, to decide to relieve Chambers of his duties at the season's end, the best available coach would either be Chambers, or a variation of Chambers without the Philadelphia ties, and a half decade worth of groundwork is thrown away.

None of this is to say he is free of blame or criticism. Chambers has gotten a lot out of very little over the years, but not without moments like what Penn State had on Saturday, a difficult defeat to swallow, no matter the fatigue or youth.

That aside, there has been a large disconnect between what Penn State having its "best freshman class ever" means and what those results should look like. The Nittany Lions are young. Tony Carr admitted earlier this season he never even lifted weights in high school. The mistake fans and perhaps the program have made collectively is the assumption that everyone is on the same page about what happens next.

Penn State's best ever recruiting class isn't the same as Penn State's recruiting class changing the course of the program 20+ games into their tenure. A very small number of freshman truly change programs overnight, Carr, Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins all have the ability to change the program, but over the course of years and with additional talent continuing to surround them.

The results have to come, and maybe they won't, but this isn't the time to bring out the pitchforks if you're a Penn State fan.

If nothing else, you've waited this long, you can wait 12 more months.



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