I think it’s safe to say that the Penn State Nittany Lion hoops team (10-4, 2-0) is on quite a roll right now.
Head Coach Ed DeChellis’ squad has transformed from a team that hit rock bottom a year ago to a team with a plethora of depth that has a shot to contend in a solid conference.
Sunday afternoon’s victory in a hostile environment in Champaign is something that fans in Happy Valley have not seen in nearly two years—a quality road win.
Wait...let’s backtrack for a moment.
Going into last Wednesday’s Big Ten Opener at the Welsh-Ryan Arena at Northwestern University, the PSU basketball team hadn’t won a single game away from the Bryce Jordan Center since February of 2006.
Now the team is riding a seven-game win streak since their tough loss in Philadelphia in early December, which dropped them to 3-4.
Regardless of the fact that both Big Ten road wins came against anything-but-stellar teams in the Huskies and the struggling Illini, the Lions’ 10-4 record and undefeated mark thus far, both in conference play and at home, show that the team has improved tremendously from the start of the season, giving Nittany Nation a ray of hope with two huge Big Ten home contests rapidly approaching.
However, before this team can really take the money and run, I’d like to address a few things that, unless over-emphasized by the coaching staff, will continue to plague the team this season:
Poor free throw shooting (especially down the stretch) and unsatisfactory execution on second chance opportunities. These are two things that a team cannot do in order to consistently win close games in a top-tier conference like the Big Ten.
Which brings me to refer to one of my most vivid memories of the young season—dare I mention it—the venture to the Old Spice Classic in Disney World on Thanksgiving weekend.
Going into the season, a look at Penn State roster would leave any Nittany Lion fanatic knowing that the team is relatively undersized in terms of height. The starting frontcourt is home to two outstanding veteran forwards—senior Geary Claxton, a member of the pre-season All Big-10 First team, and junior standout, Jamelle Cornley.
While the 6'5" Claxton is the most advertised star in recent PSU basketball memory, Cornley, despite his outstanding work ethic and dominance in the paint, is only listed at 6'5" as well at the power forward position. Their tallest player is senior center Brandon Hassell—listed at 6'11"—with decent scoring ability, but a lack of defensive prowess.
The depth of the team was uncertain early in the season, leaving fans to wonder how they would fare in the tough games against teams with height advantages, especially after seeing the team struggle mightily a year ago in rugged Big Ten matchups.
So far, however, rebounding has surprisingly been the team’s strength. They have been flat out getting it done on the boards, ESPECIALLY on the offensive glass. In the "holiday tournament to forget," the opener against the SEC’s South Carolina was the first indication of the rebounding ability of the Blue and White.
Penn State was without Cornley, an integral part of the team’s inside game for the past two seasons, because of an injury in the Blue/White scrimmage. Despite the fact that they were shorthanded, the Lions feasted on the boards, managing to significantly out-rebound a solid Gamecock team, 50 to 28, and 22 to six offensively.
But the team’s inability to connect on second chance opportunities time and time again, on top of a breakout 30-point performance by SC sophomore Devan Downey, haunted the Lions, as they dropped a heart-breaker in the final minutes, 74-67.
Again, in the team's most recent win, 68-64 over the Fightin' Illini, Penn State dominated the boards by a tally of 45 to 22 and 20 to six offensively. However, 36 percent shooting from the field and 11 misses from the free throw line in the game gave Illinois the opportunity to tie or win the game on the final possession.
Fortunately, PSU was able to escape with a narrow four point victory.
Penn State’s shooting woes from the charity stripe this season have kept many games too close. Overall, they have improved in recent weeks, but still only connect on 62 percent of their freebies.
In a few critical games this season, great performances have nearly gone to waste due to key misses down the stretch from the free throw line. Claxton, who is among the Big Ten leaders in nearly every category, struggles mightily at the stripe, shooting a meager 57 percent for the season.
Penn State shot a dismal 50 percent from the line in its home game against Seton Hall, but prevailed in the final minutes and in OT because of the emergence of freshman guard Talor Battle, who was locked in from long range during crunch time. Even senior swingman and three point guru Mike Walker, who knocked down 88 percent of his FTs last season, has only converted on a horrid 40 percent so far this season.
On the other hand, in some instances, when the team was misfiring from the field, missed opportunities at the free throw line doomed the Lions and failed to keep them in the game.
In the team’s only true non-conference road game, Penn State hung with St. Joseph’s, going into halftime knotted at 28. However, in a second half in which Phil Martelli’s potent Hawks brought an offensive onslaught, missed free throws by Penn State gave St. Joe’s more momentum, feeding a sold out crowd at the Palestra. This caused the Lions to fall further behind, resulting in a disappointing 79-67 loss in Philly.
Enough with the weaknesses—I have to give this team a significant amount of credit so far this season. There is finally something to cheer about here in the valley aside from the happenings across the street at Beaver Stadium and down the road in Rec Hall.
These players pick each other up. Yeah, a last place finish at the Old Spice Classic was an absolute disaster and a 3-4 start wasn’t what the coaching staff expected, but the team has been resilient, walking away with some nail-biting home wins this season, making it evident that this team has character and desire.
When players are having off-days, others step in and do the job.
Newcomer Stanley Pringle has found his niche off the bench in my mind, and forwards Andrew Jones III and David Jackson have provided the team with not only valuable time to rest Claxton and Cornley, but also with outstanding contributions, both by scoring and rebounding.
Geary Claxton is second in the Big Ten in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 18.6 points and nearly nine boards per game, already earning him Big Ten Player of the Week honors twice. Jamelle Cornley is healthy, coming off a dominant 18 point, 12 rebound performance in Illinois.
The Big Wwo have also reeled off two consecutive double-doubles each, including eight double-doubles in 14 games for Geary so far this year.
Mike Walker and junior guard Danny Morrissey have provided the Lions with timely three-point shooting all season long and are, as always, valuable assets to the team.
Every night, it seems like a different guy steals the show for the Lions. From Pringle's 17 point day off the bench @ Northwestern to Walker's 17 in a thrilling five-point win against Virginia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge at the BJC, the Nittany Lions have found contributors not only from the starters, but also off the bench. Players are accepting roles on this squad and finding a way to contribute as much as they can when they are given a chance.
Although the team has some weaknesses, these problems are, for the most part, solvable. The team has already tied its win total in the Big Ten from a year ago, which says a lot.
The team has had so much depth this season that Ed DeChellis has been forced to go with the flow and constantly switch lineups around. Penn State’s 8-0 home record, No. 110 RPI, and two straight road wins are evidence that Eddie D’s approach is working so far this year, and are also signs that something special could be brewing in the Jordan Center this season.
The hot start for the Nittany Lions parallels last season’s 10-4 opening. Last season, however, ended on the lowest note, as the struggling Lions dropped 15 of their final 16 Big Ten games, finishing in the cellar of the Conference Standings.
Currently, Penn State (10-4, 2-0) has a true shot at playing competitive basketball in the Big Ten Conference. The upcoming home stretch is critical and will say a lot about the squad’s ability to play consistent basketball.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers (10-3, 0-1) and the nationally ranked No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers (12-2, 2-0) will visit University Park in the upcoming week, before the Lions face a tough task at No. 10 Indiana in two weeks.
Time will tell if this improving team can keep making the necessary adjustments to get past whatever obstacles come their way this season. However, all in all, Ed DeChellis definitely has something to smile about in regards to his team so far.
This article was written independently by Pete Jensen, a freshman Journalism student at The Pennsylvania State University.
Please feel free to post any opinions, comments or reviews regarding this article.