STATE COLLEGE – Penn State basketball coach Pat Chambers isn’t immune to emotions.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament was scheduled to begin Tuesday, but instead of the Nittany Lions preparing to make the school's first tournament appearance since the 2011 season, coaches and players currently sit at home as they can only imagine what could have been.
“I was grieving,” Chambers said on The Steve Jones Show on Wednesday afternoon. “I’m still grieving. I’m still devastated. It’s been hard for me because we put everything into this program over the last nine years.”
Chambers entered his ninth season with the Nittany Lions armed with the Big Ten’s returning leading scorer in Lamar Stevens and no shortage of complementary pieces. They spent 10 weeks ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, and cracked the top 10 at No. 9 for the first time in 24 seasons.
The Nittany Lions finished the regular season 21-10 and went 11-9 in Big Ten games.
Penn State received a No. 6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament, and was slated to meet Indiana last Thursday. The game was never played as the Big Ten, and eventually, the NCAA, called off all sporting events this spring amid a growing coronavirus pandemic.
The NCAA last week offered an extra year of eligibility to its spring sports athletes. Basketball, however, is a winter sport, and NCAA hasn’t given more information in terms of its plans for its winter sports student-athletes.
Stevens and Chambers forged their relationship when Chambers recruited Stevens as a high school hoopster in Philadelphia. Chambers earlier this year recalled sitting in Stevens’ home during that recruitment period and making his pitch to Stevens and his family as to why he should come to State College.
“Lamar and I have an incredible relationship, more like a father-son than coach-player,” Chambers said. “We respect each other on the court. We work together on the court. But off the court, we were very close. He spent a great deal of time in my office. … We spent a lot of time together.”
Last year, Stevens further showed his commitment to Chambers and to Penn State when he withdrew from the NBA draft to return for his senior season. He led the Nittany Lions in scoring this year with 17.6 points per game, and he ended the season just seven points shy of surpassing Talor Battle (2,213 points) as Penn State’s all-time leading scorer. Stevens accumulated 2,207 points during his career as a Nittany Lion.
“Sometimes, only those kids come by once in a lifetime,” Chambers said. “Let’s hope it happens again. We have a great group of guys on the team coming back. I’m excited about what the future holds. But there’s only going to be one Lamar Stevens. He’s going to go down, I would think, as the greatest player to ever play in Penn State history."
The last week hasn’t only upended Penn States’ basketball program, but the NCAA-wide moratorium impacted the entire Penn State community. On Wednesday, just a week after Penn State implemented remote-learning studies for its students and faculty, the school announced it would not resume classes or hold a commencement ceremony this spring.
“The last week has been like no other in our history, and although its reach is far beyond sport, our Intercollegiate Athletics program and our student-athletes, coaches and staff have been dramatically impacted,” Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our week started on a high as we looked forward to NCAA Championship competition for many of our winter sport teams and our spring sport teams dispersed for packed spring break competitions. By the time we reached week's end, the remainder of the year's winter and spring sport competitions had been shuttered, leaving our students, coaches, staff and community with an unbearable void.”
The campus-wide shut down impacted more than just Penn State’s basketball team’s athletic progress. Student-athletes have access to athletic academic advisors throughout the year to help them balance their course load with the rigors of college sports. Five Nittany Lions basketball seniors aspire to graduate.
“These are challenges that are very real, not just for (center) Mike Watkins, but for all the students,” Chambers said. “Obviously, we know Mike’s bipolar disorder. It’s very well-documented, and he needs to be in a classroom, and he needs his tutors, and he needs that structure for study hall like a few other guys on the team, and like some people out there in the university. This is going to be very challenging for all of us.”
Penn State students now meet with their professors and teacher’s aides via web programs like Zoom, which function, essentially, as a virtual classroom.
“That’s why communication is key,” Chambers said. “We’ve already done a bunch of Zooms. We’ve already contacted the seniors to finish strong — talked to families. … Just to make sure we have a great action plan in place to make sure everybody finishes strong and understands the importance of the degree and what they need to do.”
If there’s one silver lining in the disappointment, Chambers said it shows his players nothing is ever promised. He believes there’s a lesson to learn despite his and his players’ heartbreak.
“The talent that we have currently in the program really fires me up for the future,” Chambers said. “I just think they’re going to be hungry for more when this is taken away from you. Nothing is guaranteed. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. The NCAA Tournament is not guaranteed. There’s so many lessons to learn from this. Have no regrets, and make sure that this program stays on that top-25 level where everybody really respects who we are.”