As you can imagine with our independent operation here at RLR, this isn't our day job. There are times when life simply gets in the way of us writing all the stories we want to get to during the season. That's definitely been true of us this year, especially a month ago before Shep Garner's Senior Night.
At the time, Penn State needed to rebound from a tough loss on the road to Purdue against the pre-Final Four version of Michigan (although the Wolverines showed signs of doing what they're doing now back then). With two games to play before the Big Ten tournament, the Lions needed to win one more to stay in bubble contention. The Purdue loss slowed their momentum, but the last PSU home game was a 23-point whooping of Ohio State. There would be palpable buzz in the Bryce Jordan Center for the Nits' tourney push.
So we wanted to write about Shep Garner's career before that game, because he deserved it. His story over the past four years is one that enriches our love of college sports. The pros are a different beast, but the college game allows us to watch our favorite players grow up. When you put into context all that Garner has contributed to this program, he's been absolutely vital to Chambers' rebuilding efforts. We let him down by not getting the story published at that time, then his night was ruined by a deflating loss to the Wolverines.
Not that Garner cared. It's not like Penn State basketball players are used to getting attention. When you play for this losing program with little fan support, you're often the target of frustration rather than the hero for your efforts in trying to turn the tide. How many times over the past four years has Garner been publicly criticized for some of the reckless shots he'd take? In fact, how often has the whole program been (fairly) criticized under Chambers for poor three-point shooting? Well, the school's all-time leading three-point marksman was here the whole time. He heard everything and he never left.
Luckily, Garner has given us a second chance to write about him this March. That's because he has played out of this world during the postseason, leading the Nittany Lions in their best stretch of basketball ever under Chambers. Seriously, guess who's been the best college basketball player in the postseason thus far? Would you have said Shepard Garner III? Because if you didn't, you would've been wrong.
This screencap was taken this morning from the wonderful analytics site run by Bart Torvik. Fortunately Torvik's site allows its visitors to extract player data over certain time periods. As you can see at the top, these are the top players in college basketball since March 1st. Garner is in a class by himself, posting these absurd numbers over seven games from the Big Ten tournament and NIT - 148.7 ORtg, 73.9 eFG%, 89 FT%, 54 3P%. That's just insanity and it doesn't even account for his remarkable defense. Never forget that he picked Keita Bates-Diop's pocket with an elimination game on the line against Ohio State, setting up Josh Reaves' game-winning dunk.
The list here is ranked by Torvik's PORPAGATU! statistic, which stands for Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage. The full explanation of the number and its calculation can be found here. Essentially, it is Torvik's version of baseball's WAR (wins above replacement). This allows me to be serious and correct when I put the following words together: Shep Garner has been the most valuable college basketball player in March.
The tragedy of Garner's historic finale to his career is that it's coming in the NIT and not the real tournament. If he played like this in the NCAAs, Garner would be the talk of the land and his mom would be Sister Jean. He did everything in his power at the Big Ten tournament to earn that automatic bid, but unfortunately his team came up short. Did you see his heartbreak on the Big Ten Journey after the Purdue loss eliminated them and ended their NCAA hopes?
I get the cynicism directed at the NIT. As a college hoops fan, you couldn't pay me to watch this thing if PSU wasn't playing in it. March is basketball overload and watching a secondary tournament just isn't appealing when the best teams are playing for the real trophy. We already get our hoops fix, so why should anyone give the NIT the time of day if they lack a rooting interest?
However, I don't quite understand why people can't just be honest about what the NIT actually is. Winning the whole thing deserves respect, even if you don't care whatsoever about watching it. Over the past two and half weeks, Penn State has racked up what would be considered four quality wins if they came during the regular season. It's not something to be ashamed of, especially at a success-starved program like PSU.
People will shame you for actually caring about the NIT. Screw those people.
Unlike in the NCAA tournament, Penn State had to play road games in hostile environments. If the Lions won at Marquette and at Notre Dame during their non-conference schedule, fans would never stop using them to campaign their NCAA résumé. They are impressive wins. And like in all sports, winning four games in a row is hard, especially in the sport of basketball with crazy variance in game-to-game results. How often does Loyola Chicago reach the Final Four if the tournament is played 1,000 times?
This whole experience has been an absolute treat to watch, because Garner and Penn State have played so damn well. They've done it all without Mike Watkins whose knee injury would've been considered a death sentence if it happened in January. There's no shame in being proud of what these guys have accomplished just because it's occurred in the red-headed stepchild of postseason tournaments.
Does it make up for the team's shortcomings in the regular season that forced them into this event in the first place? It's fair to say no, but that doesn't render everything else meaningless. That's why the evergreen argument between losing in the first round of the NCAAs versus winning the NIT comes up every single year for whichever teams are in the NIT Final Four. We shouldn't be afraid to admit the NIT can be really fun. People will shame you for actually caring about the NIT. Screw those people.
If Penn State wins the championship over Utah tonight (Update: They did.), there will be a new banner hung in the Bryce Jordan Center. It will hang next to the 2009 banner, the last time Penn State was in the NIT. Just like that 2009 banner, this one would also be raised to commemorate the players that made it happen. Jamelle Cornley battled on one functioning shoulder for two months and inspired 30 buses full of Penn State students to go to New York City. That experience was worth celebrating. It's one of my fondest memories as a student at Penn State. Hopefully this team gets their own banner, because Garner's absolutely earned it. His play in this postseason deserves to be immortalized, and Shep's storybook season has been far too good to deserve any other finish.