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Almost Glory: the 2001 Penn State Nittany Lions

The best finish since the Eisenhower administration

Penn State v Nebraska Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Much like the aforementioned Northwestern and the soon-to-be-discussed Rutgers, Penn State’s men’s basketball program has rarely ascended to such lofty heights as even making the tournament. Today we examine the most successful Nittany Lions season in the past two decades and marvel at how it happens.

Coach: Jerry Dunn

Record: 21-12 (7-9 in the Big Ten)

Key Players Stats:

  • G Joe Crispin, Senior, 19.5 PPG
  • F Gyasi Cline-Heard, Senior, 16 PPG, 8.2 REB
  • G Titus Ivory, Senior, 15.8 PPG, 4.4 REB, 4.5 AST

Sports make no sense sometimes. 83-win baseball teams win the World Series (the ‘06 Cardinals). 9-7 football teams conquer the Super Bowl (‘11 New York football Giants). And every year, at least one previously unremarkable collection of unpaid college basketball players make a run to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond. Florida Gulf Coast in 2013. George Mason in 2006. Penn State in 2001.

Jerry Dunn spent thirteen years as a Penn State assistant before finally being anointed head coach. His opportunity came under strange circumstances. His predecessor, Bruce Parkhill, abruptly retired two months before the ‘95-’96 season. Parkhill was only 46 at the time and has successfully guided Penn State from the A-10 to a one-year independent foray to Big Ten inclusion. The team he left behind was maybe the best in school history, posting a 21-7 record in Jerry Dunn’s first season before getting upset in the first round.

Five years later, after four straight middling finishes, the Nittany Lions looked likely to continue their mediocre trends. Though they beat Kentucky in the non-conference and Illinois and Iowa on the road, they were blasted twice by Michigan State, and lost to Northwestern (who was BADDDDD). A 7-9 Big Ten record made no assurances that they’d make the tournament.

Then something remarkable happened. In the second game of the Big Ten tournament, they took it to Sparty. The defending national champion, who’d beaten them by 44 combined points, who featured seniors Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson along with future NBA all-stars Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph, couldn’t shake the pesky Lions.

Senior and leading scorer, Joe Crispin, hit an absurd three with the clock running down to ice the game and effectively seal Penn State’s tournament bid.

They would lose the Big Ten tournament championship to Iowa by 20 the next day, but it hardly mattered. In the first round of the tournament, they won a slowed down contest against a similar Providence team.

In the second round they faced North Carolina and the outcome still makes no sense. The Tar Heels were ranked #6 in the country for good reason: they were big and physical with Brendan Haywood and Julius Peppers down low, and sophomore Joseph Forte put in 20 points a game from the point.

Forte had a disastrous game but UNC broke out an 11-point lead early and should have cruised. They didn’t. Penn State forced a whopping 22 turnovers, broke out a 7 point lead in the second half, and somehow had an answer every time the Heels came back.

A date with Temple could’ve propelled them to a fourth battle with Michigan State. But as John Chaney did time and again in his coaching career, he willed the Owls to greater-than-expected heights.

All three Penn State seniors graduated, taking 67% of the team’s scoring. In their wake, the program nearly collapsed, winning just 14 games total the following two season. Jerry Dunn was canned. Penn State has been looking to get on some sort of consistent track ever since.