Lions Not Tourney Material
Penn State shaping up, but won’t make the NCAA Tournament.
by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
For a Big Ten team, it doesn’t get much uglier than losing to a middling America East team on your home floor by double digits. Penn State will never be mistaken for a hoops power or expected to put up consistent results on the hardwood, but a 10-point loss to the Black Bears of Maine seems to have given coach Ed DeChellis’s program — one that was destined for the bottom half of the league long before the season started — some desperately needed inspiration. It just turns out that inspiration set in three games removed from their potentially calamitous non-conference loss.
The Nittany Lions were able to respond to the Maine loss with a conference-opening win over Indiana in Bloomington, but then dropped two in a row at home to Michigan and Purdue, respectively. Conference road wins are like gold and should never be taken for granted (excuse me if this is the 30th time you’ve heard someone say/write that since the upset-filled first weekend of conference hoops, but it really is the truth) and there’s no shame in losing to Purdue.
But only after this opening three-game stretch, did Penn State stop pressing the snooze button on the wake up call that was the Maine defeat? Led by guard Talor Battle (who has seemingly been playing basketball at Penn State nearly as long as Joe Paterno has been coaching football there), the Nittany Lions reeled off consecutive top- 25 home wins over pre-season Big Ten title contenders, first knocking off everyone’s early season punching bag, then No. 18, Michigan State 66-62, and last night coming up with a 57-55 win over no. 16 Illinois on an Andrew Jones putback with one second remaining. Battle poured in 26 points, including a couple ridiculous shot-clock beating heaves, to help stun the Illini.
Apparently, all it takes for Penn State to play at a Big Ten level is to practice hard. Gee, what a brilliant idea, fellas. According to Battle, in anticipation of five conference games in a row against ranked opponents, only now are the Nittany Lions “practicing like [they] have something to prove.”
Your guess is as good as mine (coaching, players, administration, playing basketball at a football school, depressing winter weather, all of the above…) why this team wasn’t putting as much into practices as they could until this point, but now that Penn State seems to have committed to a basketball season, they must be taken seriously, especially at the Bryce Jordan Center (Penn State basketball fans demonstrated during the team’s near NCAA appearance and run to the NIT title in 2009 that they will come out in force to support a winner … or at least one that competes).
I sincerely hope there is no one dumb enough to believe these two wins make Penn State a conference contender (upcoming contests at Ohio State and Purdue should bring this team crashing back down to earth), but the squad isn’t even close to consideration as an NCAA bubble team either at this point. Rival coaches have to be adjusting their scouting reports on the Nittany Lions now though. Forever the plan has been simple: Slow the electric Talor Battle and the game is in the bag. At least recently, with Penn State re-committed to out-defending and out-energizing the opponent, tight games should be expected when playing against Ed DeChellis’s kids.
Even if his team didn’t know what to expect from Penn State, Bruce Weber did, saying afterward he knew the game “was going to be close.” Maintaining this attitude from now on, in both practices and games, should be enough to protect home court against teams like Iowa and Indiana, and might steal another game from a ranked team, at home, but I’m afraid that’s all Penn State has in them. Aside from Battle, there is little reliable offensive firepower, and the team’s lack of depth (four starters average at least 30 minutes per game and the other averages 27) will catch up with it eventually. So, despite its recent success, Penn State is still a bottom-half Big Ten team… they simply don’t have the horses to keep up with the five or six ranked teams in the conference for an entire season.
Jon Jaques is a former starter for the Cornell Big Red and current forward for Israel’s Ironi Ashkelon club.