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Happy Valley Hoopers reflect the troubled past, future potential of Penn State basketball

In a disappointing TBT showing, the Happy Valley Hoopers showed a link to the past – and hope for the future – for Penn State basketball.



Penn State basketball, The Basketball Tournament, Happy Valley Hoopers
Mar 3, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions forward Mike Watkins (24) shoots the ball as Michigan State Spartans forward Xavier Tillman Sr (23) defends during the first half at Bryce Jordan Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Picture your favorite college athletes. What did they do after their time in college was over? Were they able to strike it big in the professional leagues? Most of the time, the answer is no. People talk about how much professional athletes are paid. But they should be talking about how hard it is to get to that level. Baseball players struggle to make ends meet in the minor leagues, football players bounce around from practice squads and alternate leagues, and basketball players play in the G League or in other countries. These athletes are typically underpaid and have difficulty providing for their families. Even the best college athletes can struggle to make a living wage when they move on from college. Now, enter The Basketball Tournament (TBT), specifically, the former Penn State basketball players who make up the Happy Valley Hoopers.

What is the TBT?

TBT is a professional basketball tournament that was created in 2014 by Jonathan Mugar. A field of 64 teams competes for a prize of $1,000,000. This money is split among team members equally. The games are played in four quarters that are each 10 minutes long. The game ends in what is called an Elam Ending. Once the game hits four minutes, the teams play to a particular score. That score is determined by adding ten to the leading team’s score. For example, if a team is winning 45-42 when the game hits 4 minutes, the first team to hit 55 wins. The time is turned off, and the teams only have a shot clock. 

Teams are organized by a general manager and usually feature former players from a specific university. For example, Boeheim’s Army features mostly all former Syracuse players. Another example is Mass Street (former Kansas players). Other teams are comprised of players from multiple schools. The Nerd Team (Ivy League Schools) and We Are D3 (D3 schools) are comprised of players from various schools. Other teams are comprised of players in certain regions. One thing all players have in common is that the prize money could benefit them greatly if their careers are not generating the income that people associate with professional athletes. 

This is the same for Penn State’s newly formed TBT team, the Happy Valley Hoopers (HVH).

Who are the former Penn State Nittany Lions who make up the Happy Valley Hoopers?

Last year, it was announced that Penn State would create a team for The Basketball Tournament. In January of this year, it was official. The Penn State TBT team would be called Happy Valley Hoopers (HVH). The general manager of HVH would be John Harrar, the center who finished with the most games played in Penn State history. Former Penn State assistant coach Ross Condon would serve as head coach. Aiding Condon would be Bo Waggoner, another Penn State assistant who served from 2020-2022. 

The roster Harrar put together was objectively good, for all intents and purposes. Some of the best Penn State basketball players of all time were on the roster. Longtime sharpshooter Myles Dread (2018-2023) could provide points from beyond the arc. Talented ballhandler Sam Sessoms (2020-2022) would have the ability to go to the rim. Big man Mike Watkins (2015-2020) was known for his rebound ability and great defense with the Nittany Lions. Shep Garner (2014-2018) was one of Penn State’s greatest scorers, and his 1,629 career points are good for fifth all-time.

Additionally, the HVH was getting Penn State’s all-time leader in steals. Josh Reaves (2015-2019) was not only Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year but another good scorer for the Lions. The bench featured other Nittany Lions, who fans have seen play in recent years. The Happy Valley Hoopers were in a prime position to compete and have a chance at the $1,000,000. 

The Happy Valley Hoopers disappointed in its The Basketball Tournament debut

On July 24, the Happy Valley Hoopers debuted against The Nerd Team. Despite the Happy Valley Hoopers having talented shooters, the team struggled to make baskets in the first quarter. HVH went down 17-3 at the end of the first quarter. Early on, there was nobody HVH could turn to for points. According to Penn State’s Daily Collegian, three points in the first quarter was the lowest in the first quarter in The Basketball Tournament history.

Fortunately, HVH got some help in the second quarter. Happy Valley scored 17 in the quarter, bringing the game to six at halftime. The second half was dominated by Sam Sessoms. Sessoms isn’t primarily known for his three-point shooting. That did not matter, as Sessoms drilled three in a row to give HVH the lead in the fourth quarter. By the time the game hit the 4:00 minute mark, HVH was leading 44-42. The game would be played to 54.

Despite Sam Sessoms playing possessed in the second half, HVH could not hold the lead. The Nerd Team went on to win 54-49. Even though Sessoms carried HVH, the poor shooting as a team caught up to the Happy Valley Hoopers. HVH was bounced from TBT in the first round of its first tournament. It was not the start that the team had hoped for. 

The Basketball Tournament revealed a lot about the state of Penn State basketball

Honestly, this game was hard to watch. Happy Valley turned the ball over so many times. Poor passing combined with below-average ball handling contributed to points the other way. Nobody could seem to score. Beyond that, the defense in the first half was poor at best. If it was not for Sam Sessoms’s incredible second half, HVH would not have ever been in a position to be leading.

But as all Penn State basketball fans know, even the worst teams seem to give us false hope. Sessoms gave HVH a shot to win. Toward the end, it really looked like HVH would win. Then, at the 4:00 minute mark, the first-half team returned. Poor shooting, rebounding, and defending led to the loss. It was the same arc that every Penn State basketball game followed in the past. The bad first half, followed by a big run to take the lead in the second half, only to squander the lead in the final minutes. This was the story of the Pat Chambers era. His former players and coaches continued their status quo even with a new team. 

This team comprised some of the best Penn State basketball players ever. Even the best Nittany Lions looked terrible on the court after their careers ended. The state of Penn State basketball’s past was on full display. Even the best Nittany Lions struggled in TBT. Penn State’s incredible run of mediocrity at best in basketball was shown by the incompetence of even its best players. 

But there is hope in this story. Sam Sessoms was brilliant. He finished with a game-high 28 points. Beyond that, the trajectory of the basketball program might be at an all-time high. Last year, Penn State came out of nowhere and finished second in the Big Ten Tournament. Making the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011, the Nittany Lions beat Texas A&M in the first round and narrowly lost to Texas in the round of 32. 

Jalen Pickett might be the best talent to wear the Penn State uniform. Andrew Funk and Seth Lundy provided great three-point shooting. All three of those guys ended up on NBA rosters following the season.

Even though the Nittany Lions lost their head coach, Micah Shrewsberry, and had most of the team graduate or transfer, the program is at a place it’s never been before. 

New coach Mike Rhoades took VCU to the NCAA tournament three out of the last five years. Rhoades brought two talented players, Nick Kern and Ace Baldwin, with him from VCU. The latter was A-10 Player of the Year. Ten players transferred in all, including two from the North Carolina Tarheels. The program is trending in a great direction.

Having an all-new team could mean good things. No ideology will clash with the old coaching staff. Additionally, a fresh-looking squad could get more fans into the Bryce Jordan Center. So, despite watching the Penn State teams of old, the program may never look the same. It’s only up from here.

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