Penn State Basketball: What a Difference a Year Makes

Story posted January 20, 2021 in Sports, CommRadio by Jack McCune

On the morning of Jan. 18, 2020, State College was buzzing with excitement and energy for game-day Saturday, even after football was over. Bryce Jordan Center employees got ready for work, as fans threw on their Lamar Stevens and Mike Watkins jerseys for a matinee matchup with a familiar foe.

Pat Chambers and the Nittany Lions, the AP’s 20th best team in the nation, boasting a 12-5 record, were preparing to host a dogfight against a bitter rival in No. 21 Ohio State. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, Penn State dismantled the Buckeyes 90-76 thanks to 24 points from Stevens, who went 8 of 8 from the free-throw line, and 12 from unknown freshman Seth Lundy. The team shot over 50% from the field. It was the team’s best win since fans stormed the court a month before after beating Maryland.

A nearly sold-out BJC was left to ponder the endless possibilities of Chambers’ most talented and successful team. Spectators and players alike were prepared to see the Blue and White back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. They were getting ready for March Madness—a March Madness that never happened.

Fast forward one year and a day to the morning of Jan. 19, 2021. The Nittany Lions were once again preparing to play a Big Ten opponent later that day.

But this time, Penn State was coming in at 3-5 and 0-4 in conference play. Chambers was no longer with the team, and his replacement, interim head coach Jim Ferry, was just fined $10,000 and reprimanded by the Big Ten after arguing with officials in the previous game against Purdue, which was the team’s first contest in nearly three weeks after positive COVID-19 testing. Stevens had graduated, and Lundy had struggled ever since conference play started after putting up a 30-burger earlier in the year.

The ill-willed luck didn’t cease Tuesday night, as the Nittany Lions lost in Champaign to the Illinois Fighting Illini 79-65. Lundy had his best conference performance, albeit with just 13 points and five rebounds. Senior John Harrar grabbed nine boards but made just a single bucket after scoring a career-high 14 against the Boilermakers. He also let Illinois center Kofi Cockburn have his way inside with 21 points and 12 rebounds.

In just the span of a year, the conversation surrounding Penn State basketball has gone from who the team might face in March Madness to when the team might finally win again. What a difference a year makes.

The brightest sign for the future of this team could be to compare this pandemic-riddled season to the 2018-19 campaign. In Stevens’ junior year, the Nittany Lions began 0-10 in conference play for their worst start ever. But they finished 7-3 with a five-game home win streak. And while most expected a search for a new headman at season’s end, the athletic department gave Chambers another chance to prove himself, and prove himself he did with the 2019-20 squad.

Ferry may want to think twice before packing his bags. The Big Ten is filled with talent from top to bottom, but many of the best players won’t be there next year—all five Wisconsin starters and Iowa’s Luka Garza will be graduating, while the Illinois tandem of Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu are expected to enter the NBA draft. It’s starting to look like a lost season in Happy Valley, but better days are ahead.

Penn State heads back home to take on Rutgers on Thursday night at 7 p.m. With the Scarlet Knights struggling as of late, perhaps the Nittany Lions’ late-season breakthrough will begin here.

 

Jack McCune is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email jxm1237@psu.edu.