With five Big Ten games remaining in Penn State's regular season, this is already the winningest year of the Patrick Chambers era. The Nittany Lions are 13-13 overall and 4-9 in the Big Ten. Thursday night at Nebraska, they will have an opportunity to reach five conference wins for the first time since the program's 2010-11 NCAA Tournament season.
In spite of these relative successes, questions have arisen regarding the ongoing challenges and the gradual evolution of the Nittany Lions under Chambers' direction.
At a program in which building a consistent winner has proven to be elusive, Penn State athletic director Dr. David Joyner evaluated the program's progress under Chambers' tenure.
"You definitely see progress and these guys learning, and that's coming from coaches that are helping them and teaching them," Joyner said Friday when reached by phone. "So I'm very encouraged that they've won four games at this stage [in the season]."
Getting to this point has not been without its challenges for Chambers.
After the sudden departure of former head coach Ed DeChellis in late May 2011, Chambers was initially signed to a five-year deal. According to a source familiar with the program, following the far-reaching turmoil created by the Jerry Sandusky scandal as well as the circumstances surrounding his late hiring, Chambers' deal has since been extended one year. The revamped deal secures Chambers for three more years beyond the 2013-14 season.
Saddled with a depleted roster, the Nittany Lions finished 12-20 overall with a 1-11 road record in Chambers' first year at the helm. His second season, irreparably harmed when point guard Tim Frazier was lost for the year with a blown Achilles tendon in the fourth game, saw the Lions struggle through a 12-game Big Ten losing streak before knocking off eventual national runner-up Michigan at home and Northwestern just a week later.
This year has been up and down. The Nittany Lions amassed nine nonconference wins, the most since their NIT championship season of 2008-09, then lost their first six Big Ten games before bouncing back to win four of their next six prior to Sunday's 82-70 loss to Iowa at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Lions are now 4-5 on the road and sit just two games behind a cluster of teams in the middle of the conference standings as the regular season comes to a close.
"I think we're making progress. I think we're losing some games we expect to win right at the end and we're winning games we don't expect to win. That's an indicator that this team is in a learning phase and that they're starting to figure out how to win games, which is really important," Joyner said. "They're starting to learn to do that, and I think that's a really good indicator."
In games decided by three or fewer points this season, the Nittany Lions started the year with a 0-5 mark but have since managed to win two one-point contests, including a 71-70 upset of then-No. 24 Ohio State in January. The win was Penn State's first against the Buckeyes in 19 tries.
Two weeks later, the Lions were able to overcome an 11-point deficit with just 2:30 left to play at Assembly Hall to earn a 66-65 victory against the Hoosiers. That win was only the third for Penn State in Bloomington in the program's history.
Noting that Penn State is competing in what many believe to be the toughest college basketball conference in the country, Joyner pointed out that, save for an 82-67 loss at No. 9 Michigan State, the Nittany Lions have given themselves an opportunity to win nearly every game on the schedule this season.
"It's the best conference in the country. So they're playing in the best conference in the country and they're taking some shots, but they're giving some too," Joyner said. "I think the last two years, the conference has probably been as good as it's ever been. I think if you take that into consideration. I think you have to look at it in perspective.
"They've had a chance to be in maybe all but two of these games, and they've been close, so I think that's a real indicator of them keeping their chin up, and they kind of have a lot of fight in the dog there. I think it's a real good sign."