UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State has spent most of its men’s basketball existence being a year away.
But maybe, just maybe, it is this time.
The Nittany Lions closed their regular season by beating No. 18 Indiana, 68-64, in overtime Sunday at the Jordan Center.
Minus their two top players in injured forwards Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley,
the Lions won their fifth straight home game and did so by starting four freshmen.
Sunday’s win over an Indiana team that itself seems shaky squared Penn State at 15-15 and seeded seventh heading
into the Big Ten Tournament. A win there over 10th-seeded Illinois could make the Lions a candidate for a postseason tournament — either their favorite, the NIT, or the new CBI.
“We’d welcome that,” Lion coach Ed DeChellis said.
There have been too many years when Penn State was happy to go to the NIT; in fact, it has to be one of the few schools from a major conference that hangs its third-place NIT finishes from the rafters.
But this is one season in which the program could benefit from a couple of extra games against decent opponents.
“Hopefully we can get some energy going into the conference tournament,” DeChellis said.
Penn State definitely got that energy Sunday. Without their top options for the past three years, the Lions led most of the first half and hung around long enough to force overtime after IU left the door open in the last minute.
“I think everyone was telling them we couldn’t beat Indiana,” DeChellis said of his players. “I told them I thought we could.”
The Lions picked up on that will, which helped overcome a frigid backcourt performance from Talor Battle and Stanley Pringle, who combined to miss 23-of-27 shots, including 13-of-16 from 3-point range.
But if Battle and Pringle couldn’t shoot straight, they still helped harass Hoosier freshman Eric Gordon into an 8-for-24 day. And they got the ball enough to a frontline of redshirt freshmen D.J. Jackson and Andrew Jones along with true frosh Jeff Brooks.
The trio combined to make 14-of-25 shots and held their own inside against Indiana’s D.J. White.
“I knew I had to be more aggressive,” Brooks said.
Each returns for 2008-09, but Battle, whose work also helped the Lions deck No. 8 Michigan State, isn’t ready to start thinking too far ahead.
“Never mind next year,” he said. “We have the Big Ten Tournament. I hate to look to next year because we have so much season left.”
DeChellis knows many thought his program would be further along through five years. He’s lugging a 57-91 record and woeful Big Ten winning percentage, and he’s been smacked around on the road by the league’s heavyweights.
Penn State isn’t deep enough to overcome losses to its starters — and frankly may never be — so it clings to what ifs, and this year, they may be legitimate.
“I think if we had Geary and [Cornley] healthy all year, we’re right in the thick of things [for the Big Ten title],” DeChellis said. “We hope to get another player or two this spring.”
Some pieces are clearly in place. The Lions are getting tough at home, and with the parts the Lions have returning, plus Cornley, the NCAA Tournament should be the goal for ‘09.
Just like it was for ‘08.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org