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Smeltzer: Penn State Must Keep Momentum Gained From Illinois Upset, or Narrative Won’t Change

Penn State beat Indiana, 85-66, led by coach Micah Shrewsberry
INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 09: Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Micah Shrewsberry on the sidelines during the menÕs Big Ten tournament college basketball game between the Penn State Nittany Lions and Minnesota Golden Gophers on March 9, 2022, at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, IN. (Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire)

Did this past week sum up Penn State men’s basketball or what?

What a rollercoaster. 

It started poorly Wednesday night when Penn State dropped its Big Ten opener at home to Michigan State in a game it was favored to win. 

As bad as things felt after Wednesday night, the vibe was that excellent, maybe more so, Saturday afternoon.

Penn State upset No. 17 and 11.5-point favorite Illinois and kind of pounded the Illini, winning 74-59. This type of agony (Michigan State loss) followed by ecstasy (Illinois win) is something Penn State fans know. 

In most cases, Penn State sports fans see the men’s basketball team one of two ways.

  • They don’t care about basketball and focus on more successful, prominent programs, mainly football and wrestling 
  • They care but are pessimistic. 

There are varying degrees of pessimism. 

As with any fanbase in any sport, some Penn State basketball fans are hopeful that the program will do well but are nervously bracing for the other shoe to drop sooner or later. Some just love complaining and see every setback as a sign that everything is falling apart.

To be clear, not every Penn State basketball fan is a cynic. Some always see the glass as half-full and will say “awe, shucks” after a loss and assure their less optimistic friends that the next game will be better. Over the years, Penn State basketball has given fans reasons to be happy and disappointed. 

It conjured hope and despair. 

It’s pumped people up and made people pout.

Before Micah Shrewsberry became Penn State’s coach, the program wasn’t known for winning, and it still isn’t. The NCAA Tournament has existed since 1939 before the U.S. entered World War II, and Penn State’s basketball program predates that by more than four decades. Yet Penn State has only made it to March Madness nine times, and only two have come in this millennium. In the 10 seasons that predated Shrewsberry’s arrival—nine of which were under the direction of Pat Chambers— Penn State never made the tournament. In that time, it had six losing seasons and one .500 record. 

So, yeah, Penn State basketball’s losing reputation is at justified. But it’s not like there haven’t been winning teams and moments in recent history. The 2017-18 team was a good one. It beat Ohio State— which finished the year 25-9, ranked in the top 20 and an NCAA Tournament team—three times and ended up winning 26 games. The 2019-20 team was even better.

That year, Chambers and Penn State made it to the top 10 for the first time since 1996 and finished the regular season 21-10. Overall, the 2017-18 and 2019-20 seasons featured more good moments for Penn State and its fans than bad ones. But the bad ones ended up being costly. 

As mentioned above, the 2017-18 Penn State team beat Ohio State three times. It couldn’t beat Rider when given the opportunity, losing by one point three days before Christmas at the Bryce Jordan Center. That loss might not have been the difference in Penn State making the NIT vs. the NCAA Tournament, but it didn’t help. Nor did losing seven of its nine Big Ten games by single digits, just like it lost to Michigan State by single digits. Sure, that season ended in glory (sort of) with winning the NIT Championship, but the NIT isn’t the Big Dance. 

Penn State would have been in the Big Dance in 2020, but COVID-19 ruined everything. So even in good years for Penn State, things have gone wrong that left a sour taste in fans’ and the program’s mouths. Since COVID robbed Penn State of a tournament berth, the team has had consecutive losing seasons. But even in those years, the team has had big wins that gave fans hope that things could get better. 2020-21 was chaotic for Penn State (and everybody else) for many reasons, most of it charged by the raging pandemic. For Penn State, it was extra crazy because Chambers resigned a little more than a month before the season started. 

Interim coach Jim Ferry did what he could, and the 11-14 record could have been worse for Penn State men’s basketball. Part of the reason it wasn’t worse was that Penn State beat two top 15 teams, one from out of conference and one from the Big Ten. In the fourth game of the season, Penn State pounded No. 15 Virginia Tech by 20 in the ACC/B1G Challenge. More than a month later, Penn State came into its matchup with No. 14 Wisconsin at the Bryce Jordan Center 5-7 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten. Penn State beat Wisconsin 81-71, improved to 3-6 in the conference and gave fans hope that, hey, maybe things could turn around. 

Penn State ended up going 4-6 to close out the regular season and lost a rematch to Wisconsin in the second round of the Big Ten tournament. 

Ferry didn’t perform well enough to be promoted to full-time coach, and that’s where Shrewsberry comes into the Penn State basketball story. Shrewsberry had an encouraging first season, going 14-17 and winning two Big Ten tournament games, including one over Ohio State. Many nights, Penn State competed hard and almost won but ultimately fell short. Eight of its 13 Big Ten losses were by single digits, and five were by five points or fewer. The highlight of Penn State’s season came Feb. 15, when the team upset Michigan State at the Bryce Jordan Center. 

Shrewsberry’s first season gave Penn State’s fans hope but not results. In some aspects, this year has been more of the same. Penn State’s real season started on a sour note in State College this past Wednesday and continued with a sweet symphony in Champaign three days later. Beating Illinois was a great triumph, but it must continue. There must be more games like Illinois and fewer like Michigan State. Otherwise, how the world sees Penn State basketball won’t change. 

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