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Bubble alert: PSU has lots of work left to do to go dancing

February 1, 2011 - Cory Giger
Penn State plays a big game Tuesday night at Illinois — every game is big from here on out — but the Mirror’s early press start because of an ice storm prevented us from getting the outcome in Wednesday’s edition.

Go to our website,, for a recap of the game.

Depending on how things played out against the Illini, the Nittany Lions’ NCAA Tournament hopes may have gotten a big boost last night.

It was an adventure just getting to Champaign, Ill., for Penn State, which had its plane diverted Monday night to Evanston, Ind., because of the winter storm. The team then had to hop on a bus for a four-hour ride Tuesday morning and arrived in Champaign at about 2 p.m.

There’s plenty to be excited about right now concerning Penn State basketball, but there’s also one very depressing thought. We’ll get to the bad news in a bit.

More pressing, a road win Tuesday over an Illinois team that PSU has already beaten would be huge. A loss would mean the Lions need five wins in their final eight regular-season games to get to 10-8 in the Big Ten and have a shot to go dancing. And even that might not be enough.

At 10-8, the Lions would be 17-12 overall heading into the conference tournament. They’d have a good RPI — somewhere in the 45-50 range — and a good strength of schedule, but they have no impressive non-conference wins and would be competing for spots with teams that are much better than 17-12.

Looking at the remaining schedule, the Lions must hold serve at home against Michigan, Northwestern and Minnesota and win on the road at Northwestern. That, along with a win either Tuesday at Illinois or Feb. 10 at struggling Michigan State, would be enough for 10-8.

The other games left are at Minnesota, at Wisconsin and at home against Ohio State. Penn State can hang with all three but probably won’t win those contests.

If the Lions can somehow sneak into the NCAA Tournament as a 10-12 seed, it’s highly likely they could knock off a 5-7 seed in the first round and maybe do even more damage in the second.

Few teams in the country start four seniors, and only a handful of teams have a star like Talor Battle who can take over a game at any point and hit clutch shots down the stretch.

Plus, this team has shown so much heart and character — during individual games and throughout the second half of the season — that they would be a tough out no matter who they draw in the NCAAs.

Give Ed DeChellis and his staff a lot of credit for holding the team together when things looked bleak early on. Also, give the four seniors credit for finally figuring things out and realizing this is their last chance to make an impact on the program.

OK, now the bad news: While the present looks positive, the sad reality is that this will be as good as it gets for the Penn State program for a long time. Fans should cheer this team and hope it gets to the NCAA Tournament, because the Lions are on the verge of a potential collapse next season.

Battle, arguably the best player in program history, will be gone, along with seniors Jeff Brooks, D.J. Jackson and Andrew Jones. Those four essentially are the team since the Nits get little production from the fifth starter, Tim Frazier, and virtually none from the bench.

Next year’s team may be downright horrible, with or without freshman guard Taran Buie, who remains indefinitely suspended for violating team rules. DeChellis has done enough to save his job for now, and he will face a rebuilding task that could take several years.

No matter what the coach does, he almost certainly will never get another player like Battle. It would be a shame for a player of his caliber to go his entire career without reaching the NCAA Tournament.

Battle has a month left to prevent that from happening, and he’s finally gotten some help from his fellow seniors. The foursome has made things exciting lately just to get into the NCAA picture, and they’ll have to keep exceeding expectations to stay there until Selection Sunday.

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