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Penn State remains stuck in basketball purgatory

Is progress stalled for Patrick Chambers and the Nittany Lions?

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

With 9:47 to play in the second half of Monday nights game against Wisconsin, Penn State trailed the visiting Badgers by 17 points. Miraculously, the Nittany Lions somehow managed to pull within one and held the ball for the games final possession. It appeared as if the sports Gods were shinning brightly over Happy Valley.

Or maybe not.

As time clicked off the clock, Tony Carr’s buzzer-beating 3-point attempt clanked off the front rim and the Lions frenzied comeback bid fell short. The sparse but once loud crowd at the Bryce Jordan Center fell silent as they left the arena equal parts hope dashed and pessimism fulfilled.

The sports Gods can be cruel. And especially so to Penn State men’s basketball team.

Still, Penn Staters opinion of Monday nights outcome depends largely on how you view the proverbial glass that’s either half full or half empty.

For the half full crowd, the Lions fighting back from what looked to be an insurmountable deficit shows progress. Penn State managed to come within one point of defeating traditional powerhouse Wisconsin on a night its best player went 5-for-22 from the field. No longer did the Lions need to rely on one hot shooting player to (almost) win a game. Here we go!

But if that glass is half empty? Well then Penn State should never have trailed by 17-points to a below-average Badgers team. This is the type of game good teams are expected to win. And when you combine it with the Lions disappointing road result earlier this year at NC State you’re left with a team that once again looks like it’ll fall short of preseason expectations. Trust the process? How about we blow it up and start over again.

So what is it? Is the glass half empty or half full for Penn State basketball? Well what if I told you it’s just even. Not good. But not bad either. Just sorta there. The beige of college basketball.

Penn State seems stuck.

When you look for anything in life to make progress, you expect setbacks along the way. It’s the old two-steps forward, one-step back philosophy. But for the Lions, it constantly seems like it’s taking two-steps forward and then two-steps back.

Penn State is a marathon runner on a treadmill. Or a hamster in wheel. They’re using a lot of energy, but ultimately moving nowhere.

Each piece of forward momentum for the much-maligned program always seems to be followed by a disappointment. As expectations continue to rise, so do the depths of despair.

Win the NIT in 2008-‘09 and follow that up with an 11-20 record in 2009-’10. Go on a remarkable Big Ten Tournament run to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years and follow that up with a last-second loss to Temple while your head coach bolts to take a job at Navy.

Expectations always beset with heartbreak. So is the Penn State way.

But this year was suppose to be different. The terrific core of players Pat Chambers recruited (by Penn State standards) were expected to pull the Lions out of the quicksand and move the program to new heights.

However, a less-than-stellar non-conference schedule combined with a down year for the Big Ten has that plan on life support. It’s not dead yet, but things need to fall perfectly into place moving forward for Penn State.

There’s a big difference between teams whose goal is to make the NCAA Tournament and those whose goal is to win the whole thing. The Nittany Lions find itself amongst the former.

Penn State’s schedule was built to accrue wins and pad a resume that would help the Lions be in the conversation for a bid to March Madness. It wasn’t designed to pull Penn State into the AP Top 25 or to the forefront of the Big Ten.

But I don't at all blame Pat Chambers for playing his hand this way.

Teams like Penn State, and by that I mean power five conference members with no tradition of success on the hardwood, find themselves in a difficult situation. Leaping over the Michigan State’s of the college basketball landscape is next to impossible as those schools have a systematic advantage with recruiting and exposer.

Trying to imitate a mid-major and do more with less is also off the table as ultimately you’ll need to find a way to navigate your conference without getting blown out of the water.

That leaves the Penn State’s, Washington State’s, and Ole Miss’ constantly fighting an uphill battle towards relevancy.

To his credit, Chambers has done a nice job of putting Penn State in the best possible position to make strides. He recruited talented players and built a roster that should be competitive on a nightly basis. He built a schedule that was counting on the Big Ten being better than it’s shaking out to be.

And because of that last point, the course needs to be corrected. Like I said, the season isn’t lost yet, but the entire team needs to rise to the occasion that’s been presented.

The players need to find ways to win close games. Or better yet, find ways to not find themselves in close games.

Chambers needs to instill a sense of urgency in his team night-in and night-out, as the rest of the season will be a de facto playoff to make the postseason.

If those things happen, the Nittany Lions may finally be able to take a step forward without a corresponding setback. And if they don’t? Well then it might be back to square one, hitting reset on the past seven years, yet another step back before a step forward can be taken.