New PSU AD has solid hoop history

CHICAGO – One of the best things about new Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour – if you’re a basketball fan – is that she has a lot of experience working at schools where basketball actually matters.

Fingers crossed that she can have a big impact in helping that finally be the case at PSU.

When I asked her about her goals for the men’s basketball program, Barbour said, “To compete for a national championship.”

OK, OK. Let’s not get carried away. Three or four NCAA Tournament appearances a decade would be a good start. But hey, at least she did come right out and say she’s devoted to winning in hoops, which for a long time has been questionable with Penn State’s administration.

Arguably Barbour’s best high-profile decision during her tenure at Cal was to hire former Stanford and NBA coach Mike Montgomery in 2008. Montgomery is a very good coach who guided the Bears to four NCAA Tournament berths and two NIT appearances in his six years.

The school also made it to the NCAA tourney in 2006, under coach Ben Braun, during Barbour’s time as AD.

There were some good times in hoops at Cal, for sure, but the basketball program’s graduation rate of 38 percent, according to the most recent NCAA statistics, is appalling. That kind of number will not be acceptable at Penn State, not even if the Lions do make some NCAA tourney appearances.

Prior to Cal, Barbour spent time in the administration at Notre Dame from 2000-04. She worked with men’s basketball coach Mike Brey, who led the Fighting Irish to the NCAA Tournament three of those four years.

Let’s cut to the nitty gritty: Since 2000, schools where Barbour was working made it to the NCAA Tournament eight times. In its history, Penn State has reached the NCAA tourney just nine times, and only twice since 1996.

“We’ve had a pretty good basketball program at Cal,” Barbour said. “I’ve been involved with some good basketball programs, both on the men’s and the women’s side, and we had great success at Notre Dame under Mike Brey.”

On the flip side, one of Barbour’s final decisions at Cal turned out to be an embarrassing one for her. When Montgomery retired in March, Barbour wanted to replace him with a Cal assistant but reportedly was overruled by the school’s new chancellor, who hired former Purdue standout Cuonzo Martin.

How does all of this tie into Penn State?

Well, new ADs like to hire their own people. But, in her new job, Barbour probably isn’t going to be able to make many splash hires any time soon.

The Nittany Lions already have some outstanding coaches in major/successful sports, including: James Franklin (football), Cael Sanderson (wrestling), Russ Rose (women’s volleyball), Coquese Washington (women’s basketball), Rob Cooper (baseball) and Guy Gadowsky (men’s hockey).

I have long held the belief that, with a new AD coming in, the 2014-15 basketball season will be a vital one for men’s coach Patrick Chambers. The Lions went just 6-12 in the Big Ten last year, and Chambers’ conference record of 12-42 in his three years is abysmal.

There are asterisks, of course. Chambers inherited a team virtually devoid of talent, save for Tim Frazier, when he took over the job from Ed DeChellis. And the 2012-13 season was a wash nearly from the get-go after Frazier suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.

But Chambers gets no free pass whatsoever for this past season.

He claimed over and over to anyone who would listen that he had the best backcourt in the country in Frazier and D.J. Newbill, yet the team could only manage a 6-12 conference record. Sure, it beat Ohio State twice, but end-game failures of epic proportions proved that the team had no clue most nights how to finish games, and that falls largely on the coach.

Frazier is now gone, and while Newbill is a very good player, there’s not much reason to believe the Lions can do any better than 6-12 in the Big Ten this winter. Again, it’s long been my belief that a new AD would hold him more accountable, to the degree where a 6-12 league record in his fourth season might be enough to part ways with Chambers.

I don’t feel that way any longer.

Chambers still could be on the hot seat, but I believe he has bought himself at least an additional year or two beyond this season because of some outstanding recruiting.

Chambers has landed verbal commitments from not just one, but two top-100 recruits in 6-foot-4 shooting guard Josh Reaves and 6-8 center Mike Watkins. Penn State rarely gets a sniff at a top-100 recruit, so to already have two for next year is tremendous for the program.

Even if PSU struggles this season, which is very likely, it could be foolish for Barbour to oust Chambers and risk losing those two top recruits.

“I’m going to work with Patrick to (find out) what are our gaps?” Barbour said. “What do we need and how do we put those in place for our student- athletes to create the kind of success that we’re talking about?”

She went on to add, “I think the important part is going to be sitting down with Patrick and (finding out) what’s your assessment. Again, I’m going to do a lot of listening. I’ve got a lot to learn.”

Barbour will learn quickly that the Bryce Jordan Center is not a great basketball facility. She needs to find ways to help make the game day atmosphere much better and to get the mostly apathetic students more interested.

She said she’s “not a very patient person” but also noted there are many factors that play into a program’s success that require more patience.

When asked specifically about the basketball program’s good recruiting so far, Barbour said, “I certainly understand recruiting and recruiting cycles. And recruiting over the years has just gotten earlier and earlier and earlier in terms of commits, so you do have a little bit of a longer run-up time.”

There’s no telling how much Barbour will – or will be allowed – to focus on men’s basketball when the football program is still king and has major issues of its own. Penn State isn’t Cal or Notre Dame when it comes to hoops tradition, and probably never will be.

But it should not be a place where basketball is an afterthought, either.

If Barbour can in some way help turn that around, be it with Chambers at the helm or someone else, then she will accomplish at least one gargantuan task as AD.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.