In the Shadow of No Towers

By Ramzy Nasrallah on February 26, 2013 at 2:28p

A moment of silence for Penn State basketball, which appears to be dead again.

The Nittany Lions have not won a game since December, which means – if you haven't already heard – that they are still winless in Big Ten play. Penn State has lost all 14 of its conference games by a total of 163 points, managing to consistently lose in uninteresting fashion.

Blue and white cuticles: You are safe this season.

Penn State welcomes #4 Michigan tomorrow night before heading to Minnesota and Northwestern (the Lions are winless all season on the road) and then closing the regular season at home with #17 Wisconsin. In related news, the last team to go winless in the Big Ten was Northwestern 13 seasons ago.

It will always be a football powerhouse (yes haters, always) but somehow Penn State is still a basketball afterthought two full decades after joining the Big Ten. An autopsy of this never-proud program demonstrates how this giant state school rich with resources and potential has been willfully allowed to suck for so long.

Formidable football programs are exponentially harder and more expensive to construct than decent basketball programs. Ohio State and Michigan are obvious examples of B1G schools having both. Penn State was originally supposed to assimilate to that same model, but it hasn't come close to happening.

A quick recap for you youngsters: After then-athletic director Joe Paterno's vision of an Eastern all-sports conference fell apart in the mid-1980s – and following the Big East's thanks-but-no-thanks on account of the very same weak hoops program we're discussing – Penn State joined the Atlantic-10 for every sport except the one with the white helmets.

Football was paying every single other Penn State sport's bills. Then 1988 happened, and Paterno had his first losing season – the first in State College since prior to World War II. Understandably, there was some panic around campus.

University officials recognized that the athletic department's golden goose was heading toward a looming coaching transition (Paterno turned 62 after that painful season, and just like Mick Jagger had no designs on working past normal retirement age).

The shunning from the East was still fresh, so president Bryce Jordan called Jim Delany for some Midwest security. And that's how the Big Eleven happened.

There were two beliefs at the time: Penn State was going to challenge annually for conference football titles while raising its basketball prestige as a function of participating in the Big Ten.

Twenty basketball seasons after joining what's now the B1G, Penn State has finished over .500 in conference play twice. They've gone to the NIT more often than they've gone dancing, but they've been invited nowhere for the postseason the most often.

Pat Chambers has work to do, just like everyone before him.

So back to the original question: How can a Big Ten school with a main campus enrollment of 45,000 students and a relatively new basketball arena built specifically to nurture a winning culture – to help football in paying those bills – still be so bad?

Famous nepotism beneficiary Jay Paterno has his reasons for optimism, but he's willfully ignorant to why Nittany Lion basketball got dead and stayed dead.

The short answer is that Penn State just doesn't care that its men's basketball program isn't competitive. If the Lions happen to put together a few wins or even a good season, hurray, but sustained competence isn't high on their radar.

It took Ed DeChellis eight seasons to finally get the Nittany Lions into the NCAA Tournament, in 2011. He celebrated by promptly resigning and taking over at Navy. 

As if a Big Ten coach voluntarily leaving for a military academy at any point in time after the 1930s wasn't weird enough, consider that DeChellis is a Penn State grad, was a Penn State assistant twice in the 80s and 90s for 14 years in total and had finally gotten his alma mater Madness-eligible before deciding to leave.

“The culture is just hard to change. It is a challenge,” DeChellis recently told the Patriot News. said. “Even my last couple years when we were a pretty good basketball team there were empty seats everywhere."

DeChellis went 41-95 in Big Ten play, with the high watermark coming in that 2010-11 season: The Nittany Lions went 9-9 in his final and best year.

The low point of that season is emblematic of what Penn State thinks of Penn State basketball: The team was kicked out of the Bryce Jordan Center as well as its south gym practice facility to allow Bon Jovi to practice for a concert. They practiced on a volleyball court instead on rims that looked like this.

They were kicked out again to make room for a job fair. Then they played Minnesota in a crucial home game scheduled against Penn State's gargantuan and wildly successful dance marathon. As expected, the students were all at THON. The arena was barely half full. It was as if the kids were out on break. They were across campus.

DeChellis was in the thick of an NCAA tournament bid when Bon Jovi came to town and disrupted everything, but he still made it to the Dance. And then he left.

Fixing Penn State's attitude toward its basketball team is bigger than spending money. PSU has plenty of money. In the chicken-or-egg argument of winning first to create a winning culture vs. first creating a culture conducive to winning, head coach Pat Chambers can render that all moot during the offseason.

Recruit better players. Recruit interesting players. Get the studs from Philly and Pittsburgh who currently don't even consider State College. By one measure, Penn State is only the 11th strongest program in Pennsylvania. Oh, it's a football school? Ann Arbor and Columbus send their regards.

Terrelle Pryor would have brought excitement to PSU hoops.

Recruit players that fans want to care about and look forward to seeing and fans will show up even before they start putting together winning streaks. Can you name the most interesting Penn State basketball player? Joe Crispin? Geary Claxton? John Amaechi (whose intrigue has barely anything to do with PSU hoops)?

Chambers needs more than the nice, serviceable four and five-year players who can give him six points, two assists and 21 minutes before graduating. Penn State graduates plenty of kids already.

They could stand to absorb a couple of two and three-year players who depart prematurely to fulfill their true career aspirations. State College can always welcome them back later to finish up. They could even sit courtside for a home game featuring a ranked alma mater in a full arena that loves them – or, gasp, actually recognizes them.

Chambers needs to land a couple of these big fish who are openly willing and excited about becoming ticket-sellers. A kid whose likeness ends up on a giant promotional banner outside of arena, imploring passers-by that it's time to see the best non-football show in town.

Ed. If time permits, go ahead and re-read the previous section with "Nebraska" in place of "Penn State." It all basically applies about the same.

In closing, I asked Peter Berkes, Penn State alumnus and SB Nation sportswriter if he wanted to contribute his insights for this story.

"I'm going to be honest," he said, "I don't think I could name Penn State's starting five."

In Pete's defense, I don't think anyone can. And that's a big part of the reason that Penn State basketball is dead again.


Comments Show All Comments

BuckeyeMike2002's picture

We are kind of on the mountain top right now with Buckeye Basketball. The Matta era has been an amazing chapter in the athletic history of The Ohio State University.
I don't know that you could get any lower than Penn State's basketball program. Even Northwestern at their worst at least appeared conscious. Calling Penn State basketball 'horrible' is offensive to every horrible basketball team in the nation.

Q: What is the difference between the Michigan Football Team and a bag of crap. A: The Bag.

d1145fresh's picture

I have long wondered how a team like PSU basketball can be that bad. I understand it is difficult to be a top-25 team year in and year out but when you are a school like PSU who has the means and ability to be a big d-1 program in every other sport but men's basketball it just doesn't make sense. You really mean to tell me that you can't find 10 guys who can somewhat play basketball and give them a free education and be better than .500? Dayton, Ohio, Kent State, Akron, Pitt, Temple, have all had success without the means that PSU has at their disposal. 

JLBNYC's picture

Chambers needs to land a couple of these big fish who are openly willing and excited about becoming ticket-sellers. A kid whose likeness ends up on a giant promotional banner outside of arena, imploring passers-by that it's time to see the best non-football show in town.

Maybe Trey Burke could have been that guy (original PSU commit). Burke obviously made the right decision.


Glad I'm not a PSU fan. Soooooo very glad.

"Sherman ran an option play right through the south" - Greatest Civil War analogy EVER.

tennbuckeye19's picture

I really don't understand why PSU's basketball program is so lame. It's baffling. It seems like every year they have only one decent player on their team who would get playing time at any other school in the conference and then the rest of their roster is scrub-city. 

Michael Citro's picture

With Burke and a non-injured Tim Frazier, this could have been Penn State's best season since joining the B1G. Marshall and Newbill can play, but are not in their natural positions. Borovnjak is serviceable too.

I do think Chambers has his squad playing better of late (read: the Nitts are losing closer games than before) and I think they can, and should, beat injury-plagued Northwestern.

Deshaun's picture

You hit the nail on the head, pointing out Tim Frazier's injury. He wasn't just the best player on his team. Frazier led the Big Ten in assists while finishing second in points and steals (only 0.1/game behind Craft) last season. According to ESPN, he assisted on 45.3% of his team's available possessions in 2011-12, second best in the whole nation. When a team with limited (read: "almost no") depth loses one of the best players in the whole league through whom the entire offense and defense run, there will be a huge drop in performance. Anyone who attended the 2011 Big Ten Tournament (where Penn State made its run to the finals over Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan St) remembers it was more than just Talor Battle.

He ruptured his Achilles 6 minutes into the 4th game of the season. They actually had a winning record at the time (wins over St Francis and Providence, loss to at the time #6 NC State.) Now, would they have had a winning record in the Big Ten this season with a healthy Tim Frazier? Almost certainly not. But, would they have been semi-competitive and won a few conference games? Yeah, probably.

Hovenaut's picture

I lived in south central PA for a few years in the late nineties, there is just no interest for hoops. Wrestling commands a bigger draw for winter....PA is a wrestling state, just seems Penn State left basketball for Pitt and/or Syracuse fans.

Penn State has had success (and scandal - see Rene Portland) with women's basketball, and are annual contenders in both men and women's volleyball and gymnastics. But men's hoops has never caught on up there.

Hope they at least beat Nerdwestern, a goose egg in conference play would be horrible. Especially for a football first school.....may God bless BOB, but the football team is also going to fare about as well as the hoops team has very soon.

PA Buckeye's picture

Hovenaut is right. Central PA simply isn't men's basketball territory -- wrestling is as big or bigger. So PSU is forced to go into Pittsburgh and recruit against Pitt or into Philadelphia and recruit against the Big Five, all of which are far more established in hoops than PSU. So I'm not sure comparing PSU to OSU or TSUN is fair. PSU has more competition in state, and is far more removed from Pennsylvania's main population centers than either OSU or TSUN. So I tend to think PSU basketball is simply hopeless, and that PSU's fans and administration simply accept this.
I was Bryce Jordan on January 26th, and the place was probably half full and one-sixth Ohio State fans. I sat by a family of Buckeyes from New Jersey who had never been to Bryce Jordan before (they came because State College was as close as the Buckeyes came to their home this year). Upon learning that I lived locally, the lady said, "This is a really nice building..."
...and then quickly added, "Do they know they have it?"

Hell with the lid off

Orlando Pancakes's picture

This article brought back memories of the mid-nineties Buckeyes (hauntingly shudders) and how they fell on hard times. At least we were able to climb out of that hole though. I couldn't imagine going through that for basically 20 years.

Deshaun's picture

I remember the lean years of the mid-90's when Randy Ayers brought in the Greg Simpsons, Damon Stringers, (who were fun to watch in high school at Lima Senior and Cleveland Heights, respectively) and Jamie Bosleys of the world. We went 39-72 from 1993-94 through 1996-97, including losses to such powerhouses as Ohio, Penn, Cleveland St, Bowling Green, Chattanooga, South Florida, and San Diego St. We also went 1-5 against Penn St from 1995-1997.

Then I remember Jim O'Brien refusing to recruit talented prospects who were a threat to leave early for the NBA, refusing to go after even Ohio products such as Kenny Gregory (Kansas), Andrew Lavender (Oklahoma, then Xavier), and some guy from Akron named LeBron (not sure where he ended up). He preferred instead to build a team of Velimir Radinovics, Sean Connollys, and Boban Savovics. Two quotes come to mind when Jim O'Brien's view of Ohio State basketball is brought up. The first was in reference to his preference for European and under-the-radar recruits, O'Brien said he didn't "want to deal with the posses" of elite recruits. The second was following Ohio State's trip to the 1999 Final Four, when he said Buckeye fans ought not to get used to Final Four runs, and if that is their expectation, "they (we) should become fans of Duke." I imagine the landing of Greg Oden and the Thad 5 at lowly (sarcasm intended) Ohio State must have been quite a shock to Jim O'Brien.

Luckily, we were able to land and keep (so far...crossing fingers) Thad Matta, a coach who can recruit at a high level and keep players on the team until they graduate, leave early for the NBA, or transfer due to lack of playing time from the bench. We have been ranked in the top 5 of the AP poll multiple weeks in each of the past 4 seasons. Ohio State is now an elite basketball program. But we had to endure 12 years (excluding 2 shining seasons of Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd) of mediocre to horrible basketball before we got to this point. There was a period of time when we were lower in the college basketball hierarchy than Penn State.

BuckeyeSki's picture

Much like Rob Bolden's preference in obtaining his gatorade, State Penn can't buy a bucket #NBAJam'd

Banned from BlackShoeDiaries since 2008. Crime: Slander/Defamation of Character Judgement: Guilty

painterlad's picture

To be honest, I quit caring when Eldon Miller was sleep walking coaching the Buckeyes. He was as bland as Knight was flamboyant. All it will take is for PSU to find their Gary Williams to breath some life into the program, because as stated above, it is much easier to build a basketball team than football.

To err is human. Really sucking requires having yellow stripes on your helmet.

aboynamedtracy's picture

How dead is Penn St basketball? A day after Ramzy pens another great article, the subject matter elicits only 13 comments by the following day...

WolverineKiller's picture

The only memory of PSU basketball I have is my disdain towards the Crispin brothers.
That reminds me of how much I miss Diebler.

Just Win.

kr66osu's picture

So, how about them Nittany Lions?