Penn State coach Patrick Chambers saw a hunger for next season already developing through the tears of his players in the United Center locker room.
The Nittany Lions had just lost to Purdue in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, snapping their three-game winning streak and ending their 2014-15 season.
“I didn’t see a dry eye and I knew we’re closer than we’ve ever been without question,” Chambers said Monday at the Bryce Jordan Center. “There was some hurt and some suffering and some genuine pain in that post-locker room. That’s when I knew, we’re coming. We’re coming. Now we’re going to be young, but we’re coming.”
Penn State finished the season 18-16, the program’s best mark in Chambers’ four-year tenure. The Nittany Lions started 12-1 to set the program record for non-conference wins, but they struggled to a 4-14 record and 13th-place finish in the Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions lost seniors D.J. Newbill, Ross Travis and John Johnson, but bring in a highly touted recruiting class. They’ll also return guards Shep Garner, Geno Thorpe, forward Brandon Taylor and center Jordan Dickerson, who each started at least 14 games during the regular season.
Chambers said the team has returned to the court after a week off.
“Sometimes when you finish seasons out, you don’t want to see a ball for a month,” Chambers said. “And the way we finished the season has really resurrected these kids and maybe even this program — to put it in a better light, to put us all in a better light, to make us all feel pretty good about ourselves.”
The Nittany Lions snapped a six-game losing streak with a win over Minnesota in the regular season finale. They then beat Nebraska and Iowa in the Big Ten tournament before coming up short in a 64-59 loss to Purdue.
Chambers felt the run sent the team into the offseason on a high note after a disappointing conference season.
The Nittany Lions started 0-6 in the Big Ten and lost six straight until its win over the Golden Gophers.
Chambers said he expected the Big Ten to be a challenge despite its strong start during the non-conference slate.
“We were 12-1 but I knew we were not yet ready, totally prepared for the Big Ten,” Chambers said. “We were kind of hiding certain things, we had some certain weaknesses we had to really, really work on to get us to be the best team we could be.”
Chambers said Johnson’s suspension for the final 18 games hurt the Nittany Lions, but he saw his freshmen and sophomores grow up.
Garner and Thorpe joined Newbill in the backcourt and Chambers said the team will look to them for leadership next year.
Garner, the team’s starting point guard, committed just seven turnovers in the final 11 games. Garner and Thorpe averaged 11 points and 10 points, respectively, in the last six games, providing scoring balance along with Travis and Newbill.
For much of the season, Newbill carried the Nittany Lions.
Newbill, the Big Ten’s leading scorer, averaged 20.7 points per game, while Garner was second on the team with 9.2 points per game.
Chambers said Penn State will have to play a different style next season.
“We really have to share the basketball,” Chambers said. “We really have to put it inside and we’re going to have to do different things, which is exciting for me because that’s what I’m going to start doing in a week or so here just trying to figure out the best way for us to play in the future.”
Chambers said this offseason will be critical for Dickerson and he thinks Donovon Jack and Julian Moore will need to be inside-out threats. Incoming freshman Mike Watkins could also provide a presence down low.
Watkins will join the program along with Josh Reaves and Deividas Zemgulis in the freshman class, which is ranked the best recruiting class in the program’s history.
“This offseason for us is huge on so many different levels,” Chambers said. “Guys got to change their body, get better in a lot of different areas, but if they commit to that, which they’re doing and they wanted to do, I think that’s a big change from the last few years.”
Chambers appreciates Barbour’s support
Chambers said his two-year contract extension through 2018-19 shows athletic director Sandy Barbour is invested in the program.
Barbour voiced her support for Chambers multiple times this season.
“Frankly, we haven’t had that type of support so it’s nice,” Chambers said. “It’s almost like a new beginning for me, which is great. That’s what I needed. You need that type of support.”
Chambers said the team will be getting a new film room and branding in the concourse at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Chambers said the team is close to completing its non-conference schedule for next season.
The Nittany Lions’ non-conference strength of schedule for 2014-15 was ranked 307th, according to ESPN.
“It’s obviously going to be RPI-wise a little bit harder,” Chambers said. “We’re about a game or two away from finalizing things and we still got to put contracts out there, so I can’t really reveal much. We’re close to getting it done. It’ll be fun. It’ll be taxing and we got some really hard games on the road this year. We’re gonna have more road games than we did this year. We’re gonna be ready for the Big Ten.”