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Culture of Losing

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Culture is a forbidden word around State College these days. But when used in combination with any negative adjective of your choosing (dark, awful, dreadful), it’s the best way to accurately describe the current state of Penn State basketball.

The culture surrounding Penn State’s men’s basketball program is badly broken.

Penn State finished the season with what was generally referred to as an impressive "run" through the Big Ten Tournament. After winning their final regular season game, the Nittany Lions dispatched Nebraska and Iowa in the conference tournament before losing a tight game to Purdue to end their season. It was, indeed, a pretty good run.

But a much bigger picture exists that overshadows the good feelings of Penn State’s 3-1 finish. The only thing that Penn State really accomplished during their mini-run was finally gaining a victory over a Power Five conference team with a winning conference record: their Big Ten Tournament win over Iowa.

The other two wins were victories over 6-12 Minnesota in the regular season finale and 6-12 Nebraska in the tournament play-in game.

The Nittany Lions had eight Power Five wins this past season. The combined conference record of the Power Five teams Penn State beat was 41-103, a .285 winning percentage. By comparison, Pitt—a program that hit rock bottom with their lowest win total in a dozen years—had nine Power Five wins over teams with a combined 72-90 conference record (.432 winning percentage).

For Penn State hoops, rock bottom is simply where the program has resided over the past four seasons. Since 2011-12, Penn State owns a stunningly bad 16-56 Big Ten record. Their conference winning percentage of .222 ranks 61st out of 65 Power Five teams during that same span.

These numbers are not to an attempt to kick the program when it's down. They merely provide an accurate snapshot of just how bad things have become for the program.

In the four years prior to their current 16-56 stretch, the Nittany Lions were a far more competitive 29-43 in the conference, including two seasons of .500 or better. They were 10 games over .500 overall.

For an athletic department that has won a remarkable 20 national championships in multiple sports since 2000, how does a program with the visibility of men's basketball get this bad?

The simple answer is the culture.

Perhaps the most vivid display of the losing attitude that pervades the culture of the Penn State program happened in Pittsburgh in November of 2013.

Penn State had just lost to Pitt, 78-69, in a contest the Nittany Lions led with five minutes to play.

"We're a good team. Get over it,” Penn State coach Pat Chambers growled after the loss.

Just one year earlier—on the very same court—Greg Kampe, the head coach  of the mid-major Oakland Grizzlies, was so sick after watching his team blow a late lead to the Panthers that he said he nearly vomited.

Yet here's the coach of a Big Ten program thumping his chest after a loss—a loss—to a merely solid Pitt team.

Wht bring up an incident from two years ago? Because that incident has been the norm, not the exception.

As the losses continue to pile up, that attitude continues. That very same message, along with complaints about officiating, has continued to serve as the theme of Penn State’s post-loss press conferences.

Good teams don’t talk about how good they are after losses. Bad teams don’t talk about how good they are after losses. Teams that are 40 games under .500 in the Big Ten certainly shouldn’t talk about how good they are until they’re, well, better than 40 games under .500.

But until that culture changes, there’s little reason to expect the results to change.

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