Pat Chambers’ voice quivered Friday as he described the “grieving process” through which his Penn State men’s basketball team has navigated.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called to say he was “devastated for us,” and Chambers would like his players to receive rings commemorating an NCAA Tournament appearance.
Yet peeking ahead, Chambers also said that he wants to stay at Penn State “for years to come.”
“I’m hopeful for an extension, hopeful that things will work out,” Chambers said.
Emotional time: On a conference call with reporters Friday, Chambers tied an emotional bow on Penn State’s basketball season, one that reached program-changing heights and ended in two quiet locker rooms.
Chambers said the Lions, who won 21 games and ranked as high as ninth in the AP Top 25, felt restored heading into the Big Ten tournament after losing five of their last six regular-season games. Then on March 12, Chambers had to tell his players that their opening game of the Big Ten tournament against Indiana had been canceled.
After crying in the locker room, the team took the 90-minute flight from Indianapolis to State College, where it landed to learn that the NCAA Tournament had been canceled as well. So Chambers took the players into another locker room, where they cried some more, trying to process the day.
“We were really excited about a new season, a reset, a recalibration,” Chambers said. “… I’m really proud of what we’ve done this year. Obviously, we’re very disappointed about not hearing our name, and not seeing that selection show Sunday. Devastation would be a good word. But obviously, this is much bigger than basketball. This is about life, the way this coronavirus has taken over.”
Processing the future: More than a week later, though, there’s a future to process. In 2018, after Penn State won the NIT tournament, Chambers signed a four-year extension through the 2021-22 season.
As he continues the greatly curtailed recruiting process (through texts and video chats), Chambers also said he has discussed another extension with Athletic Director Sandy Barbour. He characterized those chats as positive.
“Where the program is holistically, [Barbour] is incredibly fired up,” Chambers said. "She said so. And I’m appreciative of Sandy and what she’s done for me. There should be a case study here of being patient and sticking with somebody who saw on a daily basis the culture and the family atmosphere and the development of our program, of our staff and the direction we’re headed in.
“She saw it, she believed in it and she trusted in it, and I’d like to think Sandy is being rewarded for it.”
Chambers felt good about postseason: Chambers had shaped his ninth season at Penn State into one of his best. The Lions won eight consecutive games in January and February, peaking at No. 9 in the AP Top 25. It was their highest national ranking since 1996.
Even after the sideways finish to the regular season, Chambers felt confident about the postseason. Penn State considered itself a Big Ten tournament contender, having beaten three of the teams seeded above it.
Lamar Stevens: Chambers said he saw a better practice step in his players, particularly from senior Lamar Stevens. The first-team all-Big Ten player had scored 18 points, but went 5 for 20 from the field, in what would be his final game, an 80-69 loss to Northwestern.
Stevens finished his career just seven points shy of Penn State’s all-time scoring record and would not get a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, a primary reason he returned for his final season.
The thought brought another pause to Chambers’ voice.
“I can’t thank Lamar Stevens enough for what he’s meant to this program and what he’s done," Chambers said. “To be first-team all-Big Ten again is just incredible. Think about this: [He was] a four-year starter and didn’t miss a game. I ache for him, I hurt for him, that he wasn’t able to play in an NCAA Tournament game, and not even a Big Ten tournament game [this season]. He didn’t want to go out like that.
"… In my opinion, he’s got to go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, players in Penn State history."
Wanting accomplishments recognized: Earlier this week, Penn State Athletic Director Sandy Barbour said she plans to commemorate the winter teams “in a big way,” including the Lions’ first invitation to the NCAA men’s tournament in nine years. Chambers said, in the absence of a selection-show party, he wants the program’s accomplishments headlined.
“We were an NCAA Tournament team hands down,” Chambers said. “We’re talking about obviously putting the year up on a banner but doing a stand-alone banner. If you go back to 2012 with the football team, they got their stand-alone year [banner] in Beaver Stadium. There’s been ideas like that being thrown around.”