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A deeper look at Penn State’s bizarre basketball existence

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The issues for the Nittany Lions are imbedded in the tradition and culture of Penn State athletics

NCAA Basketball: George Mason at Penn State
Dec 7, 2016; University Park, PA, USA; A fan sits alone in the stands during the first half of the game between the George Mason Patriots and the Penn State Nittany Lions at Bryce Jordan Center. George Mason defeated Penn State 85-66. 
Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

At the conclusion of this current season one of two things will be true about Penn State men’s basketball.

Either Pat Chambers will find a way over the next eight weeks to rally his team to an improbable postseason berth in either the NCAA Tournament or NIT.

Or he won’t.

If the former miraculously comes to pass then athletic director Sandy Barbour’s job will be an easy one. She’ll be able to offer a modest extension to the seventh year coach knowing that the progress shown will be enough to sell more of Chambers to the Penn State community.

But if the latter is the end result then the decisions she’ll need to make about the stagnate program become much more cloudy and difficult to resolve.

In the event the darkest timeline comes to fruition, the first thing that will need addressing is whether or not to retain Chambers, who is currently a lame duck coach in the last year of his contract.

For any outsiders, the idea of wrestling with what to do about a coach with a sub-.500 winning percentage and only one CBI postseason appearance during his tenure seems awfully silly. But Penn State isn’t your normal college basketball Power 5 program; not by a long shot.

Trivial things like winning and success have never been good barometers for the health of the basketball team in Happy Valley because the basketball team has almost no history of doing either of those things.

Because of this it’s easy to look at the players Chambers has recruited and his infectious (in a good way) passion about what Penn State basketball could be as reason enough to stay the course.

At a certain point though, even the most creative of hashtags and fiery of soundbites aren’t going to be enough to keep the captain at the wheel of a seemingly endlessly sinking ship.

So if the powers that be take this potential opportunity to hit reset on the never-ending loop of program building at Penn State, what’s that mean for the future of hoops in State College?

Well it would be fair to assume that an athletic department with the resources of Penn State could find a way to get this whole college basketball thing figured out. But history has proven time and time again that not to be true.

Like I hinted at before, basketball has a very odd and niche existence in Central Pennsylvania.

Where as some schools like Florida, Ohio State and Michigan have proven that basketball can be a successful little brother to the juggernaut that is collegiate football, the Nittany Lions haven’t been able to crack that formula for success.

It’s like the big brother at those aforementioned schools is Peyton Manning and the basketball programs are Eli. You know, not nearly as flashy or celebrated but successful in their own right.

But at Penn State that’s never been the case. Wrestling has traditionally filled the Eli roll, evident by Cael Sanderson’s programs ability to pack the Bryce Jordan Center to capacity, a feat the basketball team struggles to get even close to.

And more recently it could be argued that men’s ice hockey and women’s volleyball have moved past basketball on the pecking order due to a string of successful and productive seasons.

So what’s that exactly make the men’s basketball program? It makes them Cooper. There’s a pull quote for you — Penn State men’s basketball is the Cooper Manning of college hoops programs.

Surely though the embarrassment of a continually empty arena and bottom feeding program would incentives the athletic department to take some major steps in an effort to fix this mess.

Welllllllllll, you’d be surprised. And why is that exactly?

Someone get me Mike Myers and Kanye West, I’m about to drop a truth bomb.

Sandy Barbour, and to an extension a bulk of the Penn State community, doesn’t care about basketball.

And therein lies the problem.

If Penn State decides to make a change from Chambers neither Sandy Barbour, nor the athletic department, nor the alumni and fanbase have show any history of demanding a high profile and significant splash when selecting a new coach.

When Chambers was hired back in 2011 he was selected from a pool of similarly anonymous mid-major coaches. Names floated at the time as potential candidates include Ron Everhart, Stanley Lewis, Rob Jeter, and Trent Larkin.

The fact that I made up two of those names and you had no idea proves my point. (The actual candidates were Everhart, who currently is an assistant at West Virginia and Jeter, who’s an assistant with UNLV and has no relation to the baseball legend).

The only major name I can ever remember being floated as a potential hire for Penn State was Larry Brown. Granted he would have come with some baggage but that’s part of the problem — an aging coaching legend with red flags shouldn’t be the peak of the mountain for a program like Penn State.

Not when the athletic department generates over $132 million in revenue. Not when it has a long list of boosters and donors willing to pony up cash for world-class facilities.

Despite this, Penn State has shown a willingness to invest in its basketball program the way most people do when their car goes in for a State Inspection. Do whatever you have to do to keep the thing running but don’t spend a single dime more.

That’s what makes the gamble of moving on form Chambers a risky one.

This lack of investing has reared its ugly head before as it’s what caused the 2011 coaching search that led to Pat Chambers being hired in the first place. Hopping in the way back machine, the Nittany Lions were coming off an NCAA Tournament berth and arguable its most successful season under then-head coach Ed DeChellis.

Despite being a Penn State alumni who also happened to have an NIT Championship under his belt, he made the decision to leave the program for, of all places, Navy.

A coach with a career .452 winning percentage left his Big Ten alma mater just as things were turning the corner for a chance to coach in the Patriot league. Just let that sink in.

Barring a miracle or significant clerical error by the selection committee, Sandy Barbour is going to have a decision to make come late March or early April.

What she elects to do with that decision will say a lot of just how much the basketball team is valued in State College. For those fans crazy enough to have stuck it out for so long on the promise and potential of what could be, here’s to hoping that they finally start to see some return in their emotional and financial investment.

But if there’s no plan to spend some money and elevate the program once and for all then the best bet might just be to keep rolling the dice with Chambers. Sometimes the grass isn’t always greener. Sometimes it’s better to dance with the devil you know.