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January 30, 2014

Column: Some context, please

Patrick Chambers has no hair.

As part of a promotion for Penn State's upcoming THON philanthropic event, Chambers and the rest of the Nittany Lions' coaching staff went earlier this week to For Men Only hair salon in State College, shaving off whatever follicles remained on their stressed out skulls.

Beats the alternative, though.

Having guided his Nittany Lions to an 11-10 overall record, marred by a 6-game losing streak to open the Big Ten schedule and five heart wrenching losses of 3-or-fewer points, Chambers has looked like a man ready to pull his own hair out for much of the 2013-14 campaign. Thankfully for Chambers - and the high-def viewing public - the clippers took care of the job first.

The frustration, it seems, stems not so much from the team he's coaching or the circumstances of its particularly cruel losses this season, but rather, the inability of fans and media to recognize this particular point in the program's evolution.

Nurturing the development of a host of raw, young players, and transfers while owning a veteran pair of talented guards and a scrapper, Chambers used a question about the importance of bench contributions as an opportunity to enlighten the conversation earlier this week.

"It's huge for our program and our future, not just this year but for next year and the following year and the year after that. It's critical. It's critical to the success of this program," he said. "I know we gotta win, but we're close.

"Maybe you guys don't understand what I mean. 'We're close.' The playing field that was once not such a playing field is slowly becoming a playing field. That's exciting to see. You guys might not see that on the record, but I see it on film and I think the other coaches see it that we're coming and we're getting closer to being able to compete at a very high level every single game."

Latching on to catch-phrases with the passion and consistency only other head coaches can appreciate, Chambers' word de l'année has been "close."

On its face, the point is largely inarguable. From the best non-conference mark in a handful of years to the various halftime leads eventually blown, the Penn State men's basketball program has been competitive in nearly every contest it's played this season.

Though shooting percentages, rebounding numbers, assists and other statistical categories have taken a step back against competition from the country's best hoops conference, coming from a ground floor in which walk-ons not only out-hustled scholarship players, but also were at times legitimately more talented, the progress is unmistakable to even a casual observer.

The issue for Chambers, of course, is Penn State men's basketball's dearth of observers, either casual or otherwise.

Too loyal to his players to directly call out underperformers, or blatantly question the blatantly questionable officiating that has produced a series of phantom fouls, one phantom fifth foul, and most recently, a phantom out of bounds call that nearly helped produce an Ohio State win on Wednesday night, Chambers is discretely begging for a little context.

Coaching has been far from pretty, particularly in late-game situations, but the reality is that, armed with a lineup featuring players few competitors would trade for, even having opportunities to win Big Ten games is at times a small feat.

"I'm also going to say we're young. We got freshmen and sophomores out there that are making mistakes. You show them on film, you coach them, you teach them, you show them on film and coach them and teach them, and at some point the light's going to come on. At some point," Chambers said. "But, they're just not there yet, but those mistakes are happening and they're reoccurring.

"And you just want to pull your hair out and hopefully they figure it out, but it will take some time. In this league, this is a man's league. Juniors and seniors get it done, and we're getting closer to that."

Following his Nittany Lions' 71-70 overtime upset against the Buckeyes in Columbus - the first win for the program against Ohio State dating back to 2004, and the first win by an unranked opponent at Value City Arena in 80 tries - maybe the conversation will start to change if Chambers' team remains competitive, regardless of the final outcomes produced through the rest of the season.

For the program's sake, and Chambers' hair, Penn State fans should hope so.







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