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February 19, 2013

Column: The Penn State paradox

Patrick Chambers wants you to be upset.

He is, and, if Penn State basketball is actually moving in the right direction, fans of the program should be, too.

At 0-13 in the Big Ten, Penn State is off to its worst start in conference play in school history, and, has tied the mark of a 13-game losing streak set by the Nittany Lions during the 2006-07 season. Of course, this is anything but new for a program that historically has been incredibly unsuccessful, regardless of its size or resources.

With star senior point guard Tim Frazier lost to injury just four games into the season, there was almost a certain inevitability to the outcome of this season.

Certainly, Chambers and his dedicated coaching staff were going to continue pushing for excellence, hoping to find weak spots in a Big Ten schedule stacked with some of the best teams in the country. But, ultimately, the possibility of an 0-13 start, or even an 0-19 run to close out the schedule, including the Big Ten Tournament, always existed and, taken in context, could be justified and essentially written off as the result of some damningly bad luck when Frazier went down.

For Chambers and a program he's trying to reconstruct both on and off the hardwood, this is where the paradox begins.

At his weekly press conference Tuesday afternoon, a reporter asked Chambers a series of questions regarding the team's recent play at the Bryce Jordan Center against Iowa and at No. 4-ranked Michigan just three days later.

In successive games, the Nittany Lions - plagued all season by nonexistent offense and inexperience - played arguably their best basketball of the season.

In successive games, despite their best efforts and improved performances, the Nittany Lions finished the games as losers, falling 74-72 and 79-71, respectively.

"I always say we're close, but I can never accept losing, and I will never accept losing," Chambers said. "We lost, but we're getting better. As individuals and as a team, we're getting better. We're getting production from some guys that are finally stepping up, which is great, and they have to continue to do that in this final stretch here. That's my job.

"I always say to you guys, we need to be the best team we can be by the end of the year, whether that's with a win or not, I feel like we're getting better. But, I will not let these guys accept moral victories. There's no moral victories when you're zero and thirteen."

The challenge for Chambers - a believe-at-all-costs, no-excuses prophet if ever there was one - is that at Penn State, moral victories have been long established as seemingly the only victories for the men's basketball program.

Even though, considering the Frazier injury and its far-reaching effects, excuses are obviously warranted, the very notion is offensive to Chambers' sensibilities.

"I get tons of emails complimenting us on our play, how hard we play, how well we share the basketball…" he started.

"For losses," this reporter interrupted.

"For losses," Chambers said. "And it bothers me, yeah.

"It's very nice. Look, it's very nice. Please, keep sending the emails. I'm not saying don't send them. All I'm saying is, that's the perception, and that's where we are, and I'm trying to change that."

Though the notion is counterintuitive, Chambers effectively needs to see two things from the Penn State fan base.

1) Understand why this team is losing.

If there's enough interest to grasp just how much the Frazier injury impacts this team and affects everything it's capable of doing with the roster that remains, that's a good sign for Chambers. It would mean that fans and an administration that have never supported the program beyond a passing interest (some would argue, for good reason) are somewhat invested in the successes and failures of the program this season and are interested in the righting of the ship.

2) Be ticked off about it.

Or, maybe even simpler: care.

Solely blaming Chambers, his staff, or any of the athletes on the team for their struggles this season would be unreasonable, but for an end game that would equate to a more passionate and involved fan base, a certain level of unreasonableness and irrationality for the sake of winning - and caring about it - would be welcomed.

All of it leaves Chambers and Penn State basketball at a crossroads as they plow ahead, not only this season but into the future of the program.

With games at Illinois Thursday night and back at home against Michigan next Wednesday, the schedule isn't going to get any easier for the rest of this season. Chambers knows this, and he's relayed as much to his team.

"I know what you want me to say, 'That's great. We hung in with the number four team in the country.' I'm not saying that, because that's what's been said here for the last twenty years. I'm tired of losing. We lost. We lost. I don't like losing.

"Everybody in the country thought we were going to lose by fifty, and let's be honest, everybody thought that, and we didn't. 'You competed and you battled.'

"But, when is it enough of 'So close,' 'Almost,' or, 'Well, you didn't get it this year, but better luck next year'?"

If Chambers' passionate response is any indication, that time has already begun.



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