STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) The roller coaster that is the Penn State men’s basketball team wants to climb back to respectability.
After last year’s 11-20 campaign, most anything will be an improvement for a program that tumbled from the 2008-09 NIT championship back to Big Ten also-ran status thanks in part to a spate of close losses. The Nittany Lions lost 11 games by six points or less or in overtime last year.
Eighth-year coach Ed DeChellis engrained his team with an offseason mantra he hopes will carry over when the season tips off Nov. 12 against Lehigh: “One more play.”
“I think we’ve got to find the positive end” of last year’s otherwise forgettable season, DeChellis said Monday at media day. “We’ve got to come up with one more – whether that means get the rebound, make a big basket, get a big defensive stop – at a crucial time to win those games.”
It’s more of an intangible or mental hurdle than a physical obstacle. While Penn State may not have the depth of conference favorites Michigan State or Purdue, DeChellis does have one of the country’s best point guards on his side in 6-foot dynamo Talor Battle (18.5 points).
Throw in the starting senior frontline of Andrew Jones, Jeff Brooks and David Jackson, and the Nittany Lions have a veteran core with the potential and experience to make a difference in crunch time.
“It’s either something you either have or you don’t have,” said 6-foot-10 center Jones. “This season, we’re always going to look to go that extra mile, push a little harder.”
The problem last year was the Nittany Lions were often a one-man gang in Battle, whose do-everything mentality had him shouldering extra responsibility while teammates – especially Jones and Brooks – struggled for stretches.
A 12-game losing streak to open Big Ten play had DeChellis’ rebuilding program taking a step back. The Penn State graduate, who had been rewarded with a three-year extension a year ago to take him through 2014, once again found himself the target of some fans’ ire, and more vocal critics have called for a coaching change.
DeChellis said he doesn’t think about the criticism.
“I feel pressure every year. You’re as good as your last game,” DeChellis said. “We’re trying as a coaching staff, myself, we’re trying to help our kids win. … They want to win. We want to win. So be it. There’s always going to be critics out there.”
What could silence them is a return to the NCAA tournament, a seemingly far-fetched goal for a school that finished last in the Big Ten at 3-15 and hasn’t made the tourney since 2001. DeChellis feels there is stronger leadership after an offseason which focused on building unity. Little things like having dinner together on days without workouts were stressed.
“Maybe that doesn’t sound like much, but that’s guys on the same page, bonding. Very, very critical,” DeChellis said.
Two underclassmen have transferred in guard Chris Babb, the third-leading scorer (9.3 points), and reserve forward Bill Edwards. Redshirt junior center Andrew Ott also decided to finish his degree and forego his senior year.
Three freshmen have joined the roster, and all three could see minutes with Penn State already down a player in 6-foot-9 Sasa Borovnjak, lost for the year with a right knee injury. With only five healthy players standing 6-7 or taller, the Nittany Lions could press more with a smaller lineup to compensate.
So Battle’s brother, touted 6-foot-2 freshman guard Taran Buie, could play a key role early. Meanwhile, big brother Battle seems more confident and poised so far, at least in front of the microphone. He wants to end his Penn State career in style.
“I was gifted enough to win the NIT in my sophomore year,” Battle said, “but that, I’m sure, doesn’t compare to getting into the NCAA tournament and feeling that atmosphere.”