Hello there, new Penn State basketball fan. It's a strange world you've entered into with Penn State ranked and well on its way to an NCAA Tournament berth.
So you're new here? That's fair. Penn State basketball has always been an acquired taste. Even so you've probably got a few questions and few blank spaces that need filling out, so here is your primer.
Back before Penn State was in the Big Ten the Nittany Lions used to play in the Atlantic 10 and had a fairly competitive go of it. The change to the Big Ten conference starting in 1992-93 wasn't an easy transition for the program and pretty much led to the situation Penn State has been in the past two decades.
There are a lot of conversations to be had about Penn State basketball's place in the athletic department hierarchy, but about the only thing you really need to know is this: Penn State men's basketball is one of three sports on campus that turns a profit, in this case due in large part to the conference's lucrative TV deal. In turn -while this isn't official policy- the question is this "Would Penn State rather spend money on football and get a return, or spend it on basketball and maybe get a return?" The choice here has been fairly simple.
This has changed a bit under Pat Chambers, who has overseen a handful of needed upgrades and renovations, but the general principle remains the same.
In terms of the postseason this millennium, Penn State has won the NIT twice in the 2000s (2009 and 2018) and made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2001 with a somewhat famous victory over North Carolina. The last tournament appearance came in 2011 with the Nittany Lions falling at the buzzer to Temple in the second round.
Why Is It So Tough:
There isn't a short answer to the question of why it's so hard to build a basketball program at Penn State but it can be boiled down to a few things. For one, winning in the Big Ten is really tough, and a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy. Good players don't want to go to a struggling program, and it's hard to win without good players. This puts an emphasis on development and the ability to convince fringe players to take a chance.
Equally true, Penn State basketball isn't at the top of the athletic department priority list. The vast majority of the fan base lives outside of town, which means limited crowds for weeknight games. As mentioned above, Penn State basketball already makes a profit and that's a bottom-line that doesn't need to be messed with for the sake of a few more wins. This has changed slightly over the years, but basketball's place in the grand scheme of things is still the same and so is the challenge: Win with less.
This brings us to Rec Hall, Penn State's old home. After a roaring Palestra crowd (roughly the same number of people went to that game as the average game at the BJC) it's fair to ask why Penn State doesn't play back across town more often. The answer largely comes down to who is already there. The building belongs to Cael Sanderson and Russ Rose and while they've been happy to share the space for one-off basketball events, there are a million things that would need to change for that to become Penn State's permanent home. So would it be fun? Sure. But it's not going to happen.
The Last Five Years:
Penn State has really been this close for a while now. The past few season have seen the Nittany Lions lose a handful of games by a basket or two. Why this is the case is a bit up for debate, but overall Penn State has not been in a position where it has a very wide margin for error. The Nittany Lions have had to bring their A-game most every night and a bad bounce or two was all it took to knock them off the winning trail.
It would be fair, because it is true, to say that Penn State hasn't won many Big Ten games over the past few seasons relative to some high profile programs, but it would be unfair to say that those games haven't been competitive.
If we're talking about players to know, Tim Frazier, Shep Garner, DJ Newbill, Brandon Taylor, Josh Reaves and Tony Carr are all good names to have in the lexicon when talking about the past half decade or so. Frazier is currently carving out a solid NBA career and Reaves just made his own league debut and was the Big Ten defensive player of the year his senior season. We'll get to Carr, Newbill, and Garner shortly.
The biggest achievement Penn State has made under Pat Chambers is the ability to recruit in Philadelphia. Once an off-limits recruiting option, Chambers and his staff have leaned on ties in the city to get in more than a few doors. Chambers, a former assistant at Villanova has turned the tide in that city along with right hand man and assistant Keith Urgo.
The Philadelphia movement truly began with the commitment of DJ Newbill who transferred from Southern Miss to Penn State. A well respected Philadelphia hooper, Newbill opened the door to Penn State as a legitimate option for kids in the city. From there a pipeline was born between Penn State and Catholic league powerhouse Roman Catholic. Penn State landed three-point shooter Shep Garner from Roman and the rest was history. Tony Carr, Nazeer Bostick and Lamar Stevens followed suit, all in the same recruiting class. Carr would help lead Penn State to an NIT title before going pro, Bostick would transfer and Stevens still remains on the team to this day. Big man Mike Watkins also hails from Philly.
Short version: For the first time in program history, Penn State is a legitimate destination for some of the best talent in the state and the surrounding areas of Philly and DC. [Unrelated to Philly, but Penn State once hosted former No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz on a recruiting visit. An event that wouldn't have happened a decade earlier.]
Penn State's head man has been at Penn State for almost a decade after taking over the job following the (somewhat) unexpected departure of Ed DeChellis. Chambers, a former associate head coach at Villanova under Jay Wright turned Boston University head coach has been the catalyst of the Nittany Lions' emergence in the Philadelphia area and a force behind many of Penn State's internal facility upgrades.
Does it seem like he has been at Penn State forever? It's not an easy job, and multiple votes of confidence by athletic director Sandy Barbour have given Chambers the time to get Penn State over the hump. However long the job should or shouldn't take, Penn State basketball is better off now than it was 10 years ago.
The lone survivor of Penn State's initial surge into Philadelphia, the senior forward turned down a chance to go pro to play one final season at Penn State. The league's lead returning scorer, Stevens has the rare ability to show up late in games that he hasn't been playing well in. Stevens if a fighter and has seen as much as anyone in the Big Ten. In year's past Stevens might have had to do it all every night, now he has a supporting cast and because of that, doesn't have to over exert. Don't test him though, he's good for a solo 8-point explosion in two minutes if you let him. A solid midrange game and finishing abilities in the toolbox already, his shot beyond the arc is the only thing missing right now.
So Why This Year:
Penn State has finally accumulated enough talent that nobody has to do it all every night. The Nittany Lions have always had a player or two that could carry the load, but it's not a winning formula on a consistent basis. Now this team is deep enough to play nine guys (Nine hit the floor for 10+ minutes against Iowa) and not really take a step backwards. There are guys coming off the bench who would have started on previous teams. The Nittany Lions haven't been far off the mark the past few seasons, but they haven't had the depth. This team is deeper, more talented and more athletic than 99% of its predecessors. When you've only been losing by a few points, that's all it takes to get over the hump.
What Will It Take:
With a solid resume under its belt already, Penn State will likely just need to win about half of its remaining Big Ten games to punch a ticket to the NCAA Tournament. The Nittany Lions could end up as high as a four-seed in the big dance if it takes care of the business it is capable of. A deep, athletic and talented team this group has a puncher's chance in every game it plays and has metrics in its favor moving forward. Of its 17 remaining games, 14 of them are against teams inside KenPom's (stats guru) Top 50. That means every win helps and very few losses will substantially hurt the resume. Penn State's goal right now: Stay healthy, win and don't let the losing streaks get past two games.