The Nittany Lions of Penn State have had a successful season thus far. Currently sitting at 19-9 going into the home stretch, the Lions have already surpassed last year’s win total, and have key victories over Michigan State, Purdue, and Illinois.
Coach Dechellis and the team have a lot to work on going into the postseason. Even having won two of their last three games, the Lions have struggled to find consistency in their game. They missed a key opportunity to potentially validate an NCAA bid by losing a tough game to the Ohio State Buckeyes on Feb. 24.
Whether it is scoring, defense or free throws, the Lions have been very streaky, and struggle to find a groove. The team has endured long stretches without scoring any points, and the defense has a tendency to break down at the wrong times.
I didn’t want to mention the meager 38 points they scored against the Illini, but I think it is important to point out that they shot 29 percent from the field that day. That kind of play will not get them very far in the tournament.
The Lions have cooled off considerably since their big victory against Michigan State in early February. Three players have led the team thus far this season; Talor Battle, Jamelle Cornley, and Stanley Pringle.
However, lately these key players are shooting well below their averages. In the game against the Buckeyes, the trio went for just 31 points, which is 15 points below their season average. The Lions lost that game by 14 points.
The Lions’ defense has been average at best this season, and it has definitely shown through late in the season as one of the weaknesses that can be exploited. Players have struggled to break through picks and/or switch-off in zone situations, leaving the opposing team wide open jump shots that are not contested.
When playing man-up, the players are slow in trailing opposing players when they are moving without the ball and have left open three-point attempts. Teams are shooting well over 40 percent from behind the line against the Lions.
Not all is lost in Happy Valley, however. Chris Babb, Andrew Ott, and Cammeron Woodyard have been bright spots off the bench for the Lions lately, providing quality minutes and offensive support.
Babb has been especially consistent, averaging 17 minutes and 7.5 points per game over the last four games. On the starting front, Andrew Jones has been a pleasant surprise down the stretch as well, averaging seven points and eight rebounds over the last four games, as well. His hard work under the basket has been a key to second chance points.
This team is very talented, and has the ability to score points in bunches. The key is to do this consistently throughout a game, while maintaining a high level of defense that limits opposing teams’ second chances.
The Lions will need to finish with a roar in their final three games of the regular season and make some noise in the Big Ten Tournament. This team is looking to make their way into the NCAA for the first time since 2001, and for the first time with Ed Dechellis as their head coach.
A late season run could be very likely for the Lions, who seem to have put themselves in a must-win situation. Two of the final three games of the season are at home, and the away game is against a struggling Iowa team.
Their next game is against Indiana at the Bryce Jordan Center, which should be a good game for the Lions to come out strong against an inferior opponent and build some confidence.
The team then stays at home against Fighting Illini before going on the road to end the season against Iowa. If the Lions take two out of three, they should be considered in for the NCAA, but ideally they would win out and at least have one win in the Big Ten tournament.
Assuming this team is invited to the NCAA tournament, they have a good enough team to make some noise. However, unless they regain that mental toughness they had at the beginning of this season, it could be one and done for the Lions.