Penn State lost, again.
It was the kind of game you’ve seen before. Close until the the end, a collection of self-inflicted wounds making winning harder than it already is. Coupled with a late review going Rutgers’ way the Nittany Lions were looking down the barrel of another loss, their ninth in Big Ten play, this one to the tune of 64-60.
There were a lot of generalities thrown around afterwards. In fairness, they’re the only sorts of things Pat Chambers can say in times like these. That his team is close, that they are a few good bounces away from winning. That they just have to keep working.
He isn’t entirely wrong. Penn State has played just about every game close. These games are not blowouts or the product of some massive talent gap like the one present a few years ago. It’s not as though the program is far away.
It’s true that Penn State has gotten bad bounces and some bad luck. The schedule is hard, and young players are young. The Nittany Lions have not handled late-game situations well. They have missed shots others haven’t. They have made mistakes their opponents have avoided.
All of these things together have resulted in an 0-9 conference record.
Next year would mark Chambers’ ninth at Penn State, nearly a decade at a Power Five program with last season’s NIT Title the only meaningful postseason appearance.
It makes nights like Saturday a natural juncture to consider his future with the program. It’s not unfair to say that the Penn State men’s basketball head coaching job is among the most difficult in the nation. The program has no natural recruiting base, at least not historically, and it has little tradition to lean on and minimal support. It also happens to play in maybe the toughest conference in the nation.
It’s also not unfair to say that at nearly any other program, Chambers wouldn’t have made it this far in the first place.
Which brings up probably a more important question, of why he has. And that answer is perhaps the bigger issue.
Short of another Terry Pegula falling from the sky, Penn State isn’t going to pour money into its basketball program. It never has and there is no indication that it will.
It has taken until Chambers’ arrival to fight the Bryce Jordan Center for expanded branding, for improved hot/cold tubs, to finally upgrade the film room, to actually build a training table area. These are things that are otherwise assumed to exist nearly everywhere else have only just shown up at Penn State. Even the outside of the Jordan Center finally says “Basketball Practice Facility,” a small change, but a meaningful one. The team buses when others fly. If there is a penny to be saved, it is.
And if you don’t think those things matter, ask James Franklin why the Lasch Building locker room needs to look like a spaceship drowning in LED lights and fancy graphics. Ask him why the lead bus in Orlando had been wrapped in Penn State branding. Ask him why his recruiting team involves hordes of interns.
The result is what Penn State has right now: a program the recruits Philadelphia well, one that constantly pushes for upgrades and has become — in terms of the run of play — competitive every night in the Big Ten. The talent gap is far smaller, the hill to get over has a much more manageable incline. The varying on-court results under Chambers are independent of the fact the guts of Penn State basketball are in the best shape they have ever been. The idea that the program in general has gotten worse, not better, is simply inaccurate.
These are some of the truths surrounding the program.
The other truths are less positive. That Penn State ought to be winning some of these games that it has lost. That next year this team will have lost Josh Reaves and perhaps even more critical pieces. There will be more questions not more answers. There will be more apathy not more support.
In theory, this could change in heartbeat. Sandy Barbour could decide that a more successful basketball program is an investment worth making beyond the aesthetic upgrades. But this is an athletic department struggling to fund a long-term Beaver Stadium renovation and massive five-year plan for campus-wide upgrades in the first stages of the so-called master plan. Men’s basketball is one of three positive cash-flow programs on campus and a big part of the financial equation. There is no guarantee that paying a coach more will result in improving that bottom line. There is no guarantee it will make people travel from out of town for a Tuesday night game. There is no guarantee more money is to be made.
This doesn’t absolve Chambers of his results, for all the bad luck and missed shots, there is a coach behind it all tasked with overcoming any given obstacle and developing players to avoid them in the first place. It’s his job to get players up for games against Rutgers as much as they are for Michigan. He can’t do it all, but in the end, it’s his job to try. It might not be for a lack of effort, but it is what it is.
But the irony in all of this is that if Penn State does fire Chambers, history suggests that it will look for a coach in the same mold — one that can recruit Philadelphia and is comfortable being in the middle of the athletic department pecking order.
And it’s hard to say that they will find a coach that checks those boxes better than the one they already have.
And it won’t be Chambers’ fault if it feels like square one all over again.