Already well-versed in overcoming devastating losses during Ed DeChellis' star-crossed eight-year tenure as coach, Penn State added two more doozies to its dismal resume the past four days.
First Ohio State's Jared Sullinger denied the Nittany Lions' upset bid on Saturday by scoring the final six points including a go-ahead hook shot in a 69-66 Buckeyes win. Then fellow All-American candidate JaJuan Johnson took his turn dashing Penn State's hopes, scoring 25 points and sinking the game-winning jumper with three seconds remaining in Wednesday's 63-62 Purdue victory.
The late heroics from Sullinger and Johnson are reminders of the narrow margin between success and failure in today's parity-ridden college basketball.
Had Penn State managed to pull off both those upsets, the Nittany Lions would be a game out of first place in the Big Ten and one of the most compelling turnaround stories in the sport. Instead they're 3-4 in conference play and lacking signature non-conference wins, meaning that only a miraculous final six weeks of the regular season will put them in position to contend for an NCAA tournament berth.
In the decade since the backcourt duo of Joe Crispin and Titus Ivory led Penn State to a surprise Sweet 16 appearance in 2001, "close but not quite" could be the slogan for Nittany Lions basketball.
There was the 2007-08 season when Penn State appeared primed for a potential NCAA tournament run until all-conference forward Geary Claxton tore his ACL 16 games and second leading scorer and rebounder Jamelle Cornley also suffered a knee injury. And there was the 2008-09 season when a 22-win Penn State team missed the NCAA tournament as a result of a double-overtime loss to Iowa in its regular season finale and then went on to win the NIT.
The Nittany Lions were supposed to be too reliant on star guard Talor Battle to avoid a bottom-four finish in the Big Ten this season, but they've exceeded expectations because the supporting cast has performed well. Forwards Jeff Brooks and David Jackson each average double figures in scoring, while Andrew Jones and Tim Frazier have contributed more consistently of late too.
In perhaps the cruelest twist of the knife for Penn State, Battle, Brooks and Jackson are all seniors, meaning the Nittany Lions will instantly go into rebuilding mode next year just as the quality of the rest of the league drops off as well.
They almost returned to relevance this week. Instead it's another close-but-not-quite moment for a program that has endured too many already.
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