The cynic is likely to look at Penn State’s record this season, roll his or her eyes and quip quickly about the Nittany Lions’ two conference wins being aberrations in an otherwise abysmal season.
But boiling something down to its simplest form and then forming ardent, acerbic opinions is typically the mating call of the cognitively lazy.
Basketball is no different.
It’s true; the Nittany Lions play this season has, at times, been difficult to watch. There have been turnovers, missed shots — oh, the missed shots — missed free throws, bumbles, bungles and losses — so many losses.
However, if you dared a long enough glance and your basketball acumen fills more than a thimble, you’ve also noticed progress.
You could argue that after an 0-14 start Penn State lucked up and caught then-No. 4 Michigan asleep at the wheel for an improbable 84-79 upset.
Then after a 73-44 steamrolling at Minnesota, the Lions barely clipped an injury-depleted Northwestern squad for Patrick Chambers first Big Ten road win.
But when Bo Ryan’s No. 22 Wisconsin Badgers came to town needing a victory after having lost two straight, it took a Traevon Jackson buzzer beater to net Ryan a 63-60 win that helped him take home coach of the year honors the following day.
For Penn State it would have been easy to succumb early to the losses and hunt for individual accolades. Instead, they improved on and off the court and perhaps started a process toward program rehabilitation.
D.J. Newbill, Jermaine Marshall and Sasa Borovnjak emerged as legitimate offensive threats. While Borovnjak can’t help next season, his efficient play on the interior is one reason for the team’s recent respectable play.
The senior from Serbia is averaging 11 points in his last seven games coupled with 4.7 rebounds and 61 percent shooting after averaging just 5.8 points, 2.7 rebounds and 40 percent through the conference’s first seven contests.
Newbill, a redshirt sophomore who sat last season after transferring from Southern Mississippi, was forced into new roles when Tim Frazier suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon injury in November.
The natural shooting guard grew into the role of point guard and then into the even bigger role of leader. He finished fourth in both points (16.4) and assists (4.2) in a conference loaded with talented floor leaders.
Perhaps most impressive though has been the Philadelphia native’s evolution as the face of Penn State basketball. His media savvy off the court, like his mid-range jumper on it, has matured.
What was once a quiet, hesitant young man in front of a microphone in October became a thoughtful, sure-footed spokesperson by March.
When a litany of Lions, himself included, missed a slew of late free throws that gifted Nebraska a January win in the Bryce Jordan Center, a visibly frustrated Newbill was the lone Lion to field questions.
“I think he’s embraced it,” said senior and co-captain Nick Colella of Newbill’s media responsibilities.
“Coming from Southern Mississippi he never had that … and I think he’s doing a really good job with it. And I think we’re starting to see guys, myself included, follow his lead.”
You could argue that as a scholarship athlete and team captain Newbill should be expected to deal with the media. You’d be correct.
Don’t shed any tears.
Simply respect that in addition to splitting a double team and hitting a floater in the lane, Newbill has also learned to artfully maneuver through trapping questions to still deftly deploy the company line.
Marshall has undergone a similar transformation.
After being disciplined last season for a violation of team rules, the redshirt junior was named a team captain just before Big Ten play began this season.
His 25 points and career-best six 3-pointers were big in Penn State’s 84-78 upset over then-No. 4 Michigan. After an 18-point night against Northwestern, and 22 versus No. 22 Wisconsin, Marshall finished fifth in conference scoring (16.2).
A modicum of respect was shown the duo when they were named to the honorable mention All-Big Ten team by conference coaches and media, Monday.
They finished the regular season as the second highest scoring duo in conference play behind only Michigan’s Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Burke was chosen the conference’s player of the year, while Hardaway Jr. took first and second team honors from coaches and media respectively.
The Nittany Lions face the No. 6 Wolverines Thursday at 2:30 p.m. in the first-round of the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.
Since apparently respect only accompanies victories, the opportunity is equal parts daunting and golden.
The Wolverines will likely be an ornery bunch after blowing a late four-point lead to Indiana that gave the Hoosiers a victory and the school’s first outright regular-season title since 1993.
The loss also denied John Beilein’s bunch a share of the title, which combined with revenge in their hearts makes an already dangerous team scarier.
In Penn State’s favor though is the style of the fight.
Michigan lacks a dominant interior presence, a position that has tormented Chambers’ team all year.
It will be a guard-dominated game for which the team is equipped, a pugilist’s dream shot at respect.
Make no mistake; the respect mentioned here shouldn’t be that afforded a title contender. But it should be enough to table the “they stink’s,” “they have no talent’s” and the “fire everyone’s,” spewed by the uninformed.
The team should be much improved next season with the developments of Newbill and Marshall, the addition of Pittsburgh transfer guard John Johnson and assuming Frazier is healthy and granted another year of eligibility.
Add to that the potential for several Big Ten teams (Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State) to lose top-tier talent to the NBA Draft, and next season could be transitional for the Nittany Lions.
Admittedly, these eyes haven’t labored through years of inconsistency so maybe the forecast is overly optimistic. Or, maybe the perspective is fresh precisely because it’s been unencumbered by years of mediocrity.
Whatever the case, Chambers and the Nittany Lions will have to carry the recent momentum into next season and recruit well in the years to come to achieve what they really want.