"We're No. 66!"
Penn State received the wonderful honor of winning the postseason tournament that declares them the 66th best team in the country. Winning the NIT meant the Nittany Lions had their most successful season since 2001 when the school reached the Sweet 16.
Last year's 27 wins are more than the previous two years combined, and the Lions haven't tallied more than 15 victories since 2001.
But the honor of being NIT Champions might finally be something to build on for a program that has bounced around conferences over the past four decades. Penn State is making sure fans know what the team achieved last season.
On the team's official site, the school makes users click through a banner that announces its NIT Championship.
Coach Ed DeChellis has the terribly tough task of trying to take that title and turn it into long-term success. It's definitely not easy to do
South Carolina won consecutive NIT titles just a few years ago and needed to seperate itself from coach Dave Odom to get headed in the right direction.
The problem DeChellis and every other coach that has walked the sidelines of Rec Hall and the monstrous Bryce Jordan Center face is how to attract recruits to a Big Ten school located in Big East country and lacks a basketball tradition.
While DeChellis has been a splendid ambassador for the school and the program, he must use this newfound success and turn it into better players. He needs to move this program a step forward.
But DeChellis has never figured out how to bring big-time players into Happy Valley. He has to compete with Big East schools located in every direction imaginable for players. He has yet been able to lure players to compete in the slower, more boring brand of basketball that is the Big Ten instead of the more up-tempo, offensive minded style of the Big East.
Top players from Michigan, Wisconsin, or anywhere else in the Midwest have the obvious choice to play in the Big Ten, but for recruits in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, and West Virginia, Big East basketball is all around them. PSU should essentially be an afterthought to them.
Penn State has to change the atmosphere and the attitude towards the basketball program—and DeChellis has to be at the center of that change. If he can do that, PSU needs to do what South Carolina did and move on.
It appears as if DeChellis is taking one step forward for the 2010-2011 season. After signing three three-star recruits for the 2009 season, DeChellis inked four-star point guard Taran Buie. PSU beat out several very good recruiters that include Georgia Tech's Peter Zaharis, Syracuse's Mike Hopkins (who brought Jonny Flynn to the Orange), and Ohio State's Alan Major.
But DeChellis will need more than a few above-average recruits to make Penn State into a perrenial contender in the Big Ten.
The Nittany Lions need to tap into a force that is quite the sleeping giant.
Happy Valley is home an incredible student body that loves its football team. That same student body has shown it can, when it wants to, love its basketball team.
When Michigan State enters the Bryce Jordan Center, the student body packs the place. Zombie Nation starts blasting from the loudspeakers, and Nittany Nation starts rocking the joint.
The school also sent hundreds of students by bus to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Finals.
It's that kind of enthusiasm that Penn State needs for every game, even when it is completing what has historically been a mediocre non-conference schedule.
Recruits want to play in front of boisterous home crowds. Some Big East schools that surround State College don't have that atmosphere. Penn State can get a leg up on them by establishing Nittany Nation to be loud and proud for every home date.
Penn State is still a few steps away from being consistently relevant in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions need to get that crowd going for every game. DeChellis needs to produce a professional prospect to be the face of Penn State basketball.
And PSU needs to renew rivalries. The Lions are in the midst of a two-year renewal of its football rivalry with Syracuse. Scheduling the 'Cuse in basketball would draw in TV cameras. Before UMass in 2007, PSU was the last team to beat the Orange in Syracuse twice in one year (granted that was in the 1920s).
Penn State also has been heated rivals with Pittsburgh for decades. West Virginia, Maryland, and the Big Five schools could all become big-name rivals if the Nittany Lions scheduled them.
Penn State has done enough to put itself into a position to consistently fight to be No. 66.
But the Nittany Lions will remain a slumbering house cat until coach Ed DeChellis can take the steps forward to establish Penn State as a legitimate major conference program.
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