Penn State Basketball Advances to NIT Semifinal, but Still has no Identity

Penn State advanced to the semifinal round of the NIT tournament after defeating Marquette 85-80, sending them back to Madison Square Garden for the second time in less than a month.  Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens continue to demonstrate their individual scoring abilities while Shep Garner is not letting this team go down without a fight.  This is the most talent that Penn State has had since Talor Battle took the Nittany Lions to the NCAA Tournament in 2011.

Pat Chambers took over the team in the 2011-2012 season, the year after their most recent tournament appearance.  Overall, Chambers’ stint as the head coach of the Nittany Lions has been a disappointing stretch in the team’s history.  This year though brought a lot of optimism with the whole 2016-2017 squad returning, and the team showing signs of breakout potential throughout the previous season.  Carr received First Team All-Big Ten honors, while Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins earned First Team All Defense in the conference.  Stevens took another big step forward.  Reading all of this, you would think that Penn State would have made the NCAA Tournament easily.  That was not the case.

Although Penn State was able to take down the Ohio State Buckeyes in three separate contests, the team was unable to earn any other quality wins against opponents like Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State, NC State and Texas A&M.  On top of that, the Nittany Lions posted losses against below average teams like Rider, Wisconsin, Northwestern, and Minnesota.  Penn State had more than enough talent to make it into the tournament this year, and with a dominant scorer like Carr, who knows what could have happened.  I believe the lack of identity killed this team.

Penn State’s offense relied a lot on Carr and Stevens playing hero ball with limited time on the shot clock.  There was not much setting up an offense and running sets.  Because of this, there was a lot of night to night pressure on Carr and Stevens to make tough contested shots.  When those shots did not fall, it left the team susceptible to losing games to inferior teams, such as Rider (who?).  When a coach cannot give a team a few easy layups throughout the game, it tends to put players in a stressful situation when the opponent goes on a run.

Chambers has done a good job recruiting the last two years, and but with Carr most likely leaving for the NBA, and Garner graduating, what is he going to do with the rest of this core to get the program over the top, and into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011?  If he struggled to win with this crop of talent, what makes people think things are going to change in 2019?  Chambers contract is up at the end of the 2018-2019 season, and with the success the team has had in the NIT, I do not see him being let go now.  If the team regresses next season, I do believe it is time to go in a different direction.

As we all saw this past weekend, teams like Arizona, Missouri, Texas, and Oklahoma got bounced in the first round even though each of these teams had a top 10 draft pick in this years upcoming draft.  Part of this is because the players do not care since they are in college for 6 months, then go train for the draft.  The other reason is because the teams were not coached properly.  Teams with less talent succeed because of the system and culture established by the head coach.  When you combine great coaching and NBA talent, that is when you get programs like Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina.  Penn State will never get the blue chippers that top programs get.  However, there are many teams with far less talent than Penn State that are constantly in the tournament.

Jim Boeheim at Syracuse has not had the talent he had in the early 2000’s.  All of Boeheim’s teams have an identity though, which has allowed them to make runs into the sweet sixteen two of the previous three years as double-digit seeds.  When in doubt, Boeheim has his 2-3 zone with his lengthy athletes to fit his scheme perfectly.  Chambers identity is letting Carr dribble the shot clock to ten seconds, and then put up a tough shot.

I am all about giving a coach time to establish a culture, but Chambers has had eight years, and if that is not long enough, it is time to move on.

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