Big Ten basketball has its haves.
It has its have nots.
And then it has Rutgers and Penn State.
Since 2011 (the last time either of the aforementioned qualified for the NCAA Tournament), the Big Ten’s 12 other programs have combined for 44 Big Dance appearances and a 72-44 record during March’s premier postseason competition.
Meanwhile during that span, the Nittany Lions haven’t finished higher than seventh in the conference standings, while the Scarlet Knights have yet to find its way out of the Big Ten basement since joining the league back in 2014.
Yet despite each schools perennial master class in hardwood futility, one could make an argument that both teams are on the cusp of competitiveness never before seen in State College, Pa. or Piscataway, N.J.
With this increased optimism comes higher expectations from two incredibly maligned fan bases. No longer will one outlying postseason berth amongst a sea of mediocrity satiate the Knight and Lion faithful.
Program building is the new target. Longevity is the new goal.
But as is the case with Highlanders, what if there can only be one?
Has Penn State or Rutgers better positioned itself to claw its way out of college basketball’s abyss?
Well in an effort to figure that out, and with an abundance of free time thanks to college basketball’s super long offseason, I thought it prudent to spend a few weeks looking over the crucial components of any healthy program and seeing who shakes out on top.
And with few people impacting the longterm strategy behind program building than the head coach, comparing and contrasting Steve Pikiell and Pat Chambers seems like a good place to start.
On its face, Steve Pikiell has benefited greatly from the cheerleader effect having followed two atrociously bad coaches in Mike Rice and Eddie Jordan. Much like when a girl has dated nothing but jerks, it’s hard not to come off as Prince Charming by comparison.
And while Rice and Jordan lowered expectations for Rutgers basketball to Great Depression-esque depths, Pikiell would warrant positive reviews even without Thing One and Thing Two setting the table.
That’s because despite back-to-back three win seasons in the Big Ten, Pikiell has managed to close the gap with the league’s top teams, nearly pulling off upsets over Purdue and Michigan State last season. On top of that, the Knights did manage to defeat a ranked Seton Hall team and put a nice little bow on its 2017-’18 campaign with a mini run during the conference tournament that successfully took place in its own backyard.
For the Nittany Lions, Patrick Chambers’ seven years at the helm of Penn State basketball has involved a level of patience typically reserved for aging wine and cheese.
But thanks to being dealt an incredibly difficult hand to start his tenure with the university, the Lions have given him an extended look at righting the ship. Entering year eight, and following some historically good recruiting classes along with an NIT Championship, it looks like the Chambers tree is finally ready to bear fruit.
Under Chambers Penn State has been the tortoise, taking slow and steady steps on an upward trajectory. This past season, the Lions were knocking on the door of the NCAA Tournament, and, even with the loss of all-conference guard Tony Carr to the NBA, look poised to knock that door down this upcoming season.
All things considered, there’s a lot to like about both coaches, especially when considering how well they each fit their respective schools. All too often, coaches are a round peg trying to be jammed into a square hole of a program. But that’s definitely not the case for either coach.
Pikiell is a high character guy with ties to the New York-New Jersey metro area and a proven track record of success at places that have no business making the NCAAs. After suffering through hot-head coaches and NBA also-rans, Pikiell is a Godsend to the Knights.
To the extent, Rutgers athletic director Pat Hobbs smartly extended Pikiell with a contract that runs until 2024.
Chambers is as Philadelphian as cream cheese, hoagies, and wooder (pronounced water for the non-locals). And while you’d be correct in pointing out that State College is nearly 200 miles away from the City of Brotherly Love, that hasn’t stopped Chambers from recruiting some of the city’s best talent up US-322 West to Centre County.
As opposed to Pikiell, however, Chambers is entering the last year of his contract. But after the success of last season, that appears to be a mere technicality with athletic director Sandy Barbour hinting that the two are crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s on an extension.
It’s weird to say that two programs with as little recent success as Rutgers and Penn State would be happy with their head coaches, but so is the case for the Knights and Lions.
That’s because Pikiell and Chambers are making tangible progress, both on- and off-the-court, at schools not accustomed to winning.
However, that’s what makes figuring out which team is in better hands a tough call. You really have to start splitting hairs to lean one way over the other.
So if for no other reason than it appears as if Pikiell might be able to turn the corner in less time than it took Chambers, I’ll give the ever so slight win to the State University of New Jersey.