A Pivotal Season for Nittany Lion Hoops

October 19, 2010 at 4:51 pm Leave a comment

The Penn State men’s basketball team held its annual media day Monday afternoon, suiting up for interviews and pictures before running through an open practice. As you’d expect, the mood was good: These preseason gatherings tend to be optimistic, with players and coaches focused on the season’s potential and a schedule loaded with winnable games. But even by those standards, these Nittany Lions seem like an especially positive and confident bunch. That’s encouraging, and perhaps a little surprising.

Last season, Penn State finished a dismal 11-20. Star guard Talor Battle put up predictably solid numbers but didn’t get much help from a team that simply couldn’t replace the talent and leadership it lost from the 2009 NIT championship team. The new season arrives with a handful of dominant story lines, led by Battle’s assault on the Penn State record book, the team’s chances of an NCAA tournament berth, and the future of coach Ed DeChellis ’82. Let’s start with that last one.

On Monday, DeChellis spoke with the assurance of a guy who believes his team is capable of big things; he sounded nothing like a guy whose job many believe might be in danger if the Lions don’t win this year. He called the Big Ten “the best league in the country, by far,” and said bluntly, “we will compete.” He took an expected question about the pressure on him this season in stride, saying “I feel pressure every year. I put pressure on myself. This is a high-stress job, but I don’t lie awake thinking about that.” He added: “We’ve got a football coach here who will go down as the greatest football coach of all time, they’re criticizing him. Who the heck am I?”

Perspective comes pretty easily for DeChellis, whether it’s comparing his situation to Joe Paterno’s, or remembering what it is he does for a living. A cancer survivor from a working-class background, DeChellis might have the toughest major-conference job in college basketball, yet he knows it’s just that—a job, coaching basketball. You won’t hear him whining at a press conference about media coverage or unfair expectations. It’s admirable.

And in truth, there are reasons for hope this season. Chief among them is Battle, the senior who is on pace to set a new school scoring record, and who should finish as the first Nittany Lion to win or share team MVP honors in each of his four seasons. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with Battle and have come to admire his understated honesty; he’s not the sort of guy who loves talking to a room full of reporters, but he does have a knack for telling the truth when most athletes would be more likely to spout a non-answer or a cliche. Asked Monday about why this year’s team should be better than last year’s, Battle spoke of the group’s attitude and cohesion.

“I remember times last year,” he said, “when guys just didn’t want to be here.”

Reading Battle’s body language at points last season, it’s not hard to guess that he might’ve been one of those players. An All-American-caliber talent with a professional career ahead of him (he’s an NBA long-shot but could easily make millions playing abroad), Battle was unquestionably and understandably frustrated at points last season, particularly in some of the Lions’ many close losses, when there didn’t appear to be another player capable of making a big play down the stretch. He and DeChellis spoke Monday of the need for Battle to trust his teammates, many of whom DeChellis expects improved play and understanding from this season.

One thing they hope helped was a preseason outing with The Program, a team-building and leadership organization run by a former Marine that looks and sounds pretty intense. If Battle can rely more on guys like forwards David Jackson, Andrew Jones, and Jeff Brooks—and if they can give him a good reason to—it should go a long way in helping the Lions improve.

One player Battle has plenty of faith in is his younger half-brother, freshman guard Taran Buie, with whom our readers should be familiar. Word from the team’s early practices is that Buie is every bit the talent DeChellis counted on when he recruited him, and that the freshman’s intensity is rubbing off on the rest of the squad, helping fill a void left by the graduation of Jamelle Cornley ’09 after the terrific 2008-09 season. As for his well-documented off-court issues, Buie swears his minor scrapes with the law are behind him, and DeChellis says he’s willing to give his young player the benefit of the doubt.

“He and I have addressed those concerns internally,” the coach said. “He’s had to jump through some hoops.” One imagines those metaphorical hoops involved lots of very literal wind sprints.

For more on the preseason pulse, I’d recommend Dave Jones’ column on Battle and Buie in the Harrisburg Patriot-News, a closer look at the Lions’ (hopefully) improved team spirit from Jeff Rice ’03 in the Centre Daily Times, and this overview from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. You can also read the transcript of the DeChellis press conference on GoPSUSports.com

Ryan Jones, senior editor

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Entry filed under: Men's basketball, The Penn Stater magazine. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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