by Farmer Jones / @thefarmerjones
I failed to get my list to Cris in time for his very cool favorite college ballers compilation, but my missing contribution wouldn’t have held much interest: at least half the dudes on my list played at Penn State.
Filling a list of favorite college ballers with Nittany Lions is a little like a rap mag making a list of the hottest Norwegian MCs: I’m sure there’s a pocket of hip-hop heads in Oslo who would be psyched, but there’s not much relevance to the broader audience. As such, I know most of you won’t be disappointed at having missed me wax poetic about Jamelle Cornley or Michael “Q-Tip” Jennings.
But I do hope you’ll spare another minute or two for Talor Battle.
In last week’s run to the Big Ten tournament final, Battle broke the school scoring record that had stood for almost 60 years. Admittedly, at a school like Penn State, and for a guy who’s been starting since the second game of his freshman year, that might seem more about simply sticking around than about actually excelling. In Battle’s case, it’s both.
I should add: A week earlier, he became just the third player in NCAA history to reach 2,000 points, 600 rebounds, and 500 assists in a career.
Did I mention he’s 5-10?
As a junior last season, the kid his Steelers-loving mom nicknamed “Bubby” led Penn State in points, rebounds, assists, and steals. He was the only player in the nation to lead a team in all those categories.
The points were a given: He was by far the best player on his team.
The assists and steals? It’s not like he had a lot of passing options for those dimes, but as the guard playing the most minutes and dominating the ball, sure.
The rebounds? Please believe me when I tell you that the 6-foot, 170 he’s listed at is a lie. Again, my man goes about 5-10, 155, and he led a Big Ten team in rebounding.
That 2009-10 team was horrible, and the prospects coming into this season weren’t much better. Penn State lost a couple of decent players to transfers and got almost nothing from its newcomers. Basically, it was the same suspects as a year earlier: Battle and three fellow senior starters, joined by a sophomore point guard who’d done little as a freshman.
This team didn’t show much in non-conference play this season, losing all the potentially resume-building games it played, and losing at home—by double-digits—to Maine.
I took my son to that game. Thank god he’s still not really old enough to appreciate good basketball, or that mess likely would’ve ruined it for him completely.
By late December, the consensus among the small clan of serious Penn State basketball fans was that this team would be lucky to make the NIT, we’d be looking for a new coach in April, and Battle would finish his stellar career without ever having a chance to shine on the biggest stage.
But then they hit Big Ten play, and those seniors—particularly combo forward Jeff Brooks, a versatile, athletic matchup nightmare who played himself onto NBA scouts’ radar—started stepping up, and that sophomore point guard, Tim Frazier, put together some great floor games and slowly found confidence in his shot.
They went 9-9 in the league. They won three straight in the tournament. On Sunday, they were in.
Through it all, Battle was the constant, averaging 20.1 ppg for the regular season, just a fraction below the Big Ten scoring title, and bouncing back from terrible shooting nights in the first two Big Ten tourney games to torch Michigan State for 25 in the semis. At one point against the Spartans, Battle hit four three-pointers in a span of 2:32; those of us who’ve been watching him for four years weren’t surprised. Dude’s favorite shot is a spot-up from the wing, about six feet behind the arc. None of us were ever shocked when they went in.
The players knew before Sunday’s conference title game that they were probably already in, but given Penn State’s recent history—the 2009 squad was mostly likely the first team left out of the Dance, and went on to win the NIT—these dudes were taking nothing for granted. Their joy when the bracket was announced is everything that’s right with college basketball.
As Penn Staters, we were happy for our team, our program, and our school, but the relative minority of Nittany Lion fans who actually care about hoops, and especially those of us who’ve spent time around this program, were most happy for Battle. And by happy, I mean shamelessly, unabashedly thrilled.
This is a kid who grew up in the hood of Albany, N.Y., with a mom he’s absolutely dedicated too, a pack of mostly younger siblings he looks out for, and no consistent father figure. When he was younger, he and his fam briefly lived in their car. He could’ve gone to a better basketball school—and I’m sure he thought about it, especially last season—but he never bitched. He just kept playing. He’s been loyal, and he’s worked his ass off. His only real failing was occasionally trying too hard.
There are stories like this every year in college basketball, hard-luck kids who convert hard work, talent and pride into a dance ticket, only to be forgotten by CBS and everyone else after the first weekend is over. My team is a 10 seed, so odds are they won’t make the second weekend. Penn State fans will be briefly bummed, but the spring football game is coming up in about a month, so we’ll get over it soon enough.
But for this week, at least, guys like Talor Battle deserve all the shine they can get. So I’ll say it on behalf of the few thousand of us who care: We see you, Bubby. Thanks for everything. Enjoy the dance.