NEW YORK - To a man, Penn State's graduating seniors said they wanted to leave the program better than they found it four years ago.
The Nittany Lions' 69-63 victory over Baylor in the National Invitation Tournament championship game Thursday night at Madison Square Garden assured a special place in PSU basketball history for the entire team, particularly forward Jamelle Cornley, who was voted the NIT's most outstanding player.
"Records can be broken, but legacies, they live forever," Cornley said, "and that's what I want to leave here with."
He did, along with fellow seniors Stanley Pringle and Danny Morrissey.
And while coach Ed DeChellis, an excellent in-game strategist who did a masterful scheming inside space for Cornley, said he didn't think the script could have been written any better, the NIT should be a building block for the future.
Sophomore guard Talor Battle admitted as much during Thursday's celebration.
"This has been a great season, but we definitely want to turn it into a program and not make it a one-year thing," he said.
He's totally right.
It can be argued that the Lions gained more from their NIT run than they may have in a one-and-done NCAA appearance, but it can't be argued strongly.
Yes, it got more playing time and saw encouraging development out of the likes of returnees Andrew Jones, David Jackson, Chris Babb and Jeff Brooks.
Yes, it got them on national TV more.
And yes, and perhaps most importantly, the charge to Madison Square Garden proved there's a passionate Penn State following out there for basketball hungry to be further tapped.
At the same time, the Lions played and coached well enough in the NIT and late in the season that they just might have won a game or two in the NCAAs, like their 2001 predecessor.
We'll never know that.
How this translates into the next step for the program will be important. Perhaps it was a slip but in praising his team and the NIT, DeChellis talked about well the Lions regrouped emotionally when they weren't selected for "the other tournament."
He must make no mistake: He and the Lions, in large part because of soft scheduling, were in the "other tournament."
Let's see how much this is a learning experience for Penn State.
Let's hope the lower tier of the non-conference schedule is substituted with another marquee game or two and better mid-majors. Let's hope it carries over to recruiting, and perhaps it already has in the form of Battle's brother, high school junior Taran Buie, a top 100 recruit who verbally committed to PSU after the game.
The 2009 NIT was fun and certainly a fitting sendoff for Cornley and the seniors, but the extent it really helps won't be known for another couple of years.
In the meantime, the Lions, DeChellis and his staff deserve congratulations.
Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.