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New Season, Same Penn State Basketball

The Nittany Lions opened the 2016-17 season with a thud.

NCAA Basketball: Albany at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State Basketball has seemingly been stuck in limbo the last three seasons under head coach Patrick Chambers. The team, which was disastrous throughout his first two seasons at State, has been on the verge of turning the corner and finally competing in the Big Ten. Unfortunately for Penn State, though, the team has gone 50-50 the last three seasons, winning 16, 18 and 16 games respectively.

While no one will knock the hustle or effort Chambers has gotten out of his team, especially with somewhat uneven and flawed rosters, fans are waiting for the Nittany Lions to finally make that leap. With the program refusing to get over the hump, Chambers has bought time thanks to his ability to improve the recruiting efforts. That of course holds especially true this year with a strong recruiting class including a pair of four star recruits, as well as a pair of three star prospects (one of which, Joe Hampton, has already departed), and has led to optimism surrounding the program.

The problem is that Chambers will need to eventually start winning games and that may be difficult in 2016-17 with an inexperienced roster that is losing several key players, including leading scorer Brandon Taylor. The turnover could justify some of the growing pains, but with Shep Garner and Payton Banks back this season, there’s expectations for at least some improvement. Even more so with a young core to build around this year.

If the Nittany Lions want to make strides and reach some level of postseason play, they really need to have a better non-conference run this year. Last year the team had a passable 9-4 record, until you realize the resume was void of quality wins and included losses to Duquesne and Radford. With a relatively weak opening to the season, that put pressure to win in the conference and Penn State’s roster isn’t quite there yet to compete in the upper half of the Big Ten.

That’s why Penn State can’t afford to lose to teams like Albany in 2016-17. The Great Danes aren’t exactly a bad team, going 24-9 a year ago and losing to Ohio in the CBI, but they’re still a bad loss for a Big Ten program. It becomes even more problematic for Penn State when you look at the remainder of their non-conference schedule. There are of course the obvious wins, cupcakes like Colgate and Morgan State, that pad the schedule with manageable affairs. But the problem is quality wins and where Penn State might find a few.

There may be a handful of opponents from power conferences, but excluding meager opponents like St. John’s and Georgia Tech, and you’re left with three key games: Duke, George Washington and Pittsburgh. Can Chambers get his team to win these games? If Penn State posts a 8-4 record in the first two months and can’t edge a quality victory, will it even matter if Penn State snags an upset?

The reality is this isn’t a “NCAA Tournament or bust” season for Penn State, but the team does need to finally start making progress to appease fans of the program. The Nittany Lions are more than willing to give their coaches plenty of time to try turning the program around, with Jerry Dunn and Ed DeChellis each getting eight seasons apiece even though they managed only three tournament appearances. So with that being said, Chambers has some time to get his team rolling. And with young talent at hand, that’s a good thing.

However, losing to Albany in the fashion that they did simply isn’t going to cut it. Penn State was trailing by 19 at one point in the second half, and while they narrowed the gap at the end of the game, they spent a good chunk of the game trailing by double digits. They were also out rebounded by a decisive 43-26 margin, even though Albany didn’t play a single player taller than 6’8”. Simply put, if the frontcourt can’t step it up things could get rough down the stretch for the Nittany Lions.

Here’s the reality, it’s only one game and this obviously won’t define a season. The issue for the Nittany Lions is that their non-conference schedule is crafted in a way that there opportunities for quality wins come predominantly in games that are likely losses. With a team relying on plenty of underclassmen and featuring a spotty frontcourt, getting above .500 in the Big Ten won’t be an easy feat either. Penn State fans have been patient and will likely give Chambers some more time, but another 16-18 win season would show that the program has essentially stalled and one has to wonder when that patience will suddenly fade away.

The last several seasons Penn State has been increasingly competitive, but until they can stop losing these winnable games it’s going to be a difficult task to get to the next level. There’s more than enough talent across the roster that Penn State should be winning games like these, and sooner or later Chambers is going to have to answer for it if his program keeps repeating the same results year in and year out.