STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – This week was supposed to be the realization of a lifelong dream for Penn State’s Taylor Nussbaum, whose team was expected to earn its first trip to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in nearly a decade.
Instead, Nussbaum is home in South Salem while the sports world stands still. As COVID-19 continues to spread, and large crowds are being discouraged or outright banned, most amateur and professional sports leagues have either canceled or postponed the remainder of their seasons.
“It’s definitely a bitter ending, especially for the seniors who worked so hard all year,” said Nussbaum, a junior guard for the Nittany Lions.
The NCAA basketball season ended with no conference champions being crowned, no nets being cut down, no brackets announced on Selection Sunday, no Cinderella upsets, and no “One Shining Moment.” The heartbreak is especially painful for teams and fanbases, like Penn State, that had never experienced that sort of glory before.
Better known for its excellence in football, wrestling and volleyball, Penn State was enjoying its best season in men’s basketball in decades. The Nittany Lions, ranked in the Top 25 for much of the year, finished the regular season with a 21-10 win-loss record. Penn State last made the NCAA Tournament in 2011 and has not won a tournament game since 2001. The Nittany Lions had not been ranked in the Top 25 since 1996, before Nussbaum was born.
“We put in so much work the whole year, had a lot of great wins,” Nussbaum said. “It was the most close-knit team I’ve ever been a part of for sure. We were so connected on and off the court, and that’s what made us a great team. I think if we could have played in the tournament, we could have made a solid run.”
Penn State’s dream season ended in the blink of an eye. Nussbaum and company woke up in Indianapolis on Thursday, March 12, ready to tip-off against Indiana in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. But the tournament was canceled before the Nittany Lions could ever take the court.
At that point, Penn State did not believe their season was over. Earlier in the week, NCAA President Mark Emmert announced that the men’s basketball tournament would go on—without fans.
“They were telling us the NCAA [Tournament] was still going to happen,” Nussbaum said. “It might get postponed for two weeks but it was still going to happen.”
Everything changed on the short flight back from Indianapolis to State College.
“When we got off the plane, everybody got the notification” that the tournament had been canceled, Nussbaum said. “Everybody was kind of shocked.”
The ending was especially devastating for Penn State’s seniors who will never have the chance to play in an NCAA Tournament game. Nussbaum’s teammate, Lamar Stevens, was just 6 points away from becoming Penn State’s all-time leading scorer.
Nussbaum, though, still has one year left at Penn State. The former John Jay basketball player was offered a few Division 1 scholarship opportunities when he graduated from high school in 2017. But he turned down likely playing time at smaller schools in favor of Penn State University.
“I chose Penn State because it was the biggest opportunity on the biggest stage,” Nussbaum said. “I knew I could work my up into the into the rotation.”
Nussbaum grew up and still lives in South Salem. He played on John Jay High School’s varsity basketball team for two years before transferring to White Plains High School for his junior season and then Cheshire Academy (Connecticut) for his senior season. The 6-foot-2 guard scored more than 1,000 points in his varsity career.
Nussbaum transferred for basketball reasons, saying his heart was still in South Salem.
“[Cheshire] is where I reached my full potential and got my scholarship offers,” Nussbaum said of the prep school. “All of my best friends graduated from John Jay. I love South Salem. That’s my place.”
Nussbaum has played in nine games so far in his career, scoring his first point against the University of Maryland Eastern Shore on Nov. 5. He said he will work hard in practice to earn more playing time his senior season.
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