Regarding the Penn State men’s basketball program, the definition of progress is subjective.
Meeting with reporters in May to summarize the Nittany Lions’ 2016-17 season, an up and down year featuring quality wins and frustratingly close losses culminating in a 15-18 overall record, head coach Patrick Chambers was given an opportunity to offer his definition.
Posed by a colleague as a question of urgency to finally reach the NCAA Tournament in the upcoming season, especially given the program's current six year absence, Chambers pointed beyond the black and white. Instead, Chambers characterized what he’s considered some of the larger development that has already occurred within the program under his leadership.
“I wouldn't say (making the NCAA Tournament is) a huge step. We finally have consistency. I would tell you 15-plus (wins) the last four years, we haven't done that since when, '92, '93, '94? So we finally have consistency,” said Chambers. “Now we just have to break through.”
Though the Nittany Lions have indeed finished with 15-or-more wins in each of the past four seasons, the end results have largely left Penn State’s fan base hungry for more. In his six-year tenure that included a cupboard largely bare of talent upon his arrival, then impacted negatively by the Jerry Sandusky scandal and its fallout, the high water marks have been few.
In total wins, the Lions' 18-16 overall mark in the 2014-15 campaign is the best since the tournament run of 2010-11, with the Lions’ 7-11 conference performance in 2015-16 season marking the best, 10th place, finish in the Big Ten.
Held without an NIT bid, let alone an NCAA Tournament appearance, Chambers’ tenure has prompted questions to Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour regarding the standards of progress she should expect to see for the program moving forward.
Asked on the Penn State Coaches Caravan in Altoona last week by Penn State reporter Mark Brennan whether or not there’s “any sort of pressure for him to take that next step,” Barbour laid out her own vantage point on the issue.
“Absolutely, and Pat Chambers would be at the top of the list for saying that that's the goal, that's what we need to see. So I don't think there's any disagreement about that at all,” said Barbour. “We may need to take a step first to get there, but that's the goal of every one of our coaches. The men's basketball program happens to be one of the more visible ones nationally, but I'm not putting any more pressure on Pat Chambers than he is on himself.
“I don't disagree, that's the goal, that's what we're working for. I believe we're making progress but it's not a 10-year plan. The timeframe is a little shorter than that.”
Of no surprise to Barbour, Chambers himself echoed the sentiment earlier this month. As he enters his seventh year with the program in 2017-18, he said the pressure for success is not something he feels from his bosses, but is instead something he puts on himself.
“I have a vision for this place. Is it taking a little bit longer than I was hoping? Yeah. It sure has,” said Chambers. “But we have to stick to the plan and the plan is coming together. I feel like all the pieces are coming together as well. I think we're eight possessions away, two possessions away from flipping this.”
Chambers’ argument is cemented in what was largely a season of missed opportunities for a group featuring few veterans but significant true and redshirt freshman talent. Playing to a 1-6 record against Big Ten opponents in games decided by a single possession or in overtime, the Nittany Lions ultimately finished 12th in the conference standings with a 6-12 record.
Bringing in the program’s highest rated recruiting class in its history in the form of Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens and Nazeer Bostick last year, building on the additions of Mike Watkins and Josh Reaves the year prior, Chambers said that he believes the athletic administration understands some of the foundational strides that are being taken.
“I do think they see what we're doing here. I do think they see some consistency. Yeah, we want to get to the postseason for sure, but we've broken into Philly and now we're in the DMV and we're getting into some places Penn State has never gotten into. So there's progress there,” said Chambers, checking off the program’s 100 percent graduation success rate, community service and other peripheral factors to bolster his argument.
Coming on the heels of Carr's Big Ten All-Freshman Team season, plus the development of Stevens, Watkins and Reaves, Chambers added his steadfast belief that the program's evolution will be felt in the wins column this season.
“But what it comes down to on the outside is wins and losses, and I think that's about to come," said Chambers. "When you're taking over a program and you're rebuilding, it takes time, especially if you want to do it the right way. That's how we're trying to do it. I thank Sandy Barbour a million times, every time I see her I appreciate the time to turn this thing around and reach everybody's expectations for sure.”
Calling himself fortunate and grateful to have that support, Chambers added that he's approaching the upcoming season with a new perspective. Wishing he'd enjoyed the process, in spite of its wild ups and downs last season, Chambers said he's expecting to turn his own internal pressure this season into one focusing on the positives.
“I'm going to enjoy this year. I'm going to have so much fun,” he said. “This is going to be my new mantra is just to enjoy it. I wish I enjoyed it a little bit more last year. I needed to. But this year, I think with this team I really enjoy these guys, I love being around my team, I love being around this staff and this program. The only pressure I'm going to feel is what I put on myself.
“When I come home and look myself in the mirror and say did you do everything that you can do? And watch the film and look myself in the mirror again, did you do everything that you could do to put your team in the right position? No matter what happens, I'm going to be able to put my head on the pillow, for sure.”