The Nittany Lions haven't been very good under Patrick Chambers, finishing his first three seasons with losing records before last year's 18-16 finish. Chambers has also struggled heavily in conference play, going 16-56 since taking over as head coach in 2011. Of course this isn't a big difference from what Penn State typically experiences, with the program typically finishing towards the bottom of the Big Ten.
While Penn State occasionally breaks through for some minor success (2011's NCAA Tournament appearance, 2001's Elite Eight appearance), the team's lack of success has became painstakingly consistent. One of the biggest differences here since the arrival of Chambers, though, is the team has consistently improved their effort as Chambers has built a hard-working, tough team that is always fighting against teams with considerably more talented rosters. The only problem is the team's work ethic hasn't translated into wins, starting to create some pressure on Chambers. It's probably not a make or break season for the coach in his fifth year here, but improvement is probably a necessity this season and the fan base would finally like to see some progress in the Big Ten.
So of course the Big Ten decided to be incredibly cruel to the Nittany Lions, giving them one of the roughest stretches to open the Big Ten. As if losing star D.J. Newbill and contributors Geno Thorpe and Ross Travis weren't big enough issues to deal, the conference created a schedule were Penn State will likely be underdogs in 10 of their first 11 games:
- at Maryland
- at Michigan
- Michigan State
- at Purdue
- at Northwestern
- at Ohio State
- at Iowa
Opening up the season? Big Ten favorite Maryland on the road. Three days later, how about a road trip to a likely rejuvenated Michigan team. Then you get a young and feisty Minnesota program, another top Big Ten program in Michigan State and a difficult road trip to Mackey Arena. A slight respite follows the five game stretch with a match-up against Northwestern, but of course that comes on the road. Then Penn State will have to go right back at it, facing Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Indiana.
For a Penn State team trying to finally get over the hump and compete in the Big Ten, facing the top Big Ten programs in a relentless six week span will be trying and if it doesn't go well, the Nittany Lions season will likely be all but over by the time mid-February rolls along and the schedule finally softens (they draw a four game stretch featuring Nebraska twice and Rutgers). For an embattled coach that has had little success over his first four seasons, another finish at the bottom of the Big Ten could prove to be a fatal blow. Even more so that the team lost their star in D.J. Newbill, meaning this will be Chambers first season without either Newbill or Tim Frazier.
While the hot seat is starting to warm up considerably in State College, it should be noted that the school let previous coach Ed DeChellis go seven seasons without a NCAA appearance before finally making it in his final season. The problem is Chambers started to show at least some progress the last two seasons, meaning facing the gauntlet to start off conference play could derail any chance for improvement in 2016. If Penn State regresses from last season, which wasn't a great season as is, does the administration start to lose faith in what Chambers brings to the table?
Looking back at the conference opening, it almost feels like a cruel joke. Even more so as Penn State also has an abundance of their early games on the road, further complicating matters. If Chambers can find a way to win several of these games, or maybe even four or five of the first 11, that alone would likely warrant the full support from the athletic department.
Chambers has been working on improving recruiting and changing the culture around a basketball program that has struggled finding success, and he'll face one hell of a challenge to kick things off in 2016. It probably won't end well for Penn State, and it's not really a fair draw all things considered, but I'm sure Chambers will find a way to keep his team motivated during the stretch. He just needs to find a way to finally start winning some of these games.