UNIVERSITY PARK - Penn State basketball has returned to national relevance, thanks to last season's NIT championship.
Well, actually, not really. Not according to several preseason college basketball magazines, which have shown the Nittany Lions very little respect by slating them to finish ninth in the Big Ten.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Talor Battle grips a ball during Penn State men’s basketball media day Monday.
The program took a big step forward in a lot of areas last season - school-record 27 wins to go along with the NIT title - but it apparently still has a ways to go in the respect department.
That's why this season so important.
"We need to have another successful season so it's not one of those one-hit wonder things," standout junior point guard Talor Battle said.
Penn State held media day Monday, and the first question out of the chute for coach Ed DeChellis was how did last year's success change the program. DeChellis, who did a terrific job a season ago, said the notoriety has had a big impact on recruiting.
"Every year we've tried to upgrade recruiting, and I think last year really helped us," DeChellis said. "The games on national TV really, really helped us. The bus loads of people from Centre County and the students coming to Madison Square Garden and that whole great TV venue for us was extremely important."
All of that should pay off for DeChellis over the next few years as he continues to attract a better caliber of players.
The short-term goal, however, is to put together a second consecutive strong season and continue to build a foundation. There are plenty of doubters, too, that Penn State can pull it off, as Battle explained when asked about the perception of the program.
"I'm not sure how much it really changed," Battle said. "I'm not going to lie to you guys. I see the magazines where they have us finishing ninth or 10th again, so in their eyes, it may have been a one-hit wonder."
The Lions return Battle, one of the best players in the Big Ten. But they also lost the heart and soul of the team with the graduation of bulldog forward Jamelle Cornley, along with steady shooting guard Stanley Pringle.
The squad will rely on a younger mix of players, led by sophomore guards Chris Babb and Cammeron Woodyard, to go along with junior forwards Andrew Jones, Jeff Brooks and David Jackson.
"Now that Jamelle's gone, all the guys are looking up to me," Battle said. "So it's my job to try to stay as positive as much as I can, even if my shot's not falling."
The Lions' soft non-conference schedule got hammered by national and local media last season - and kept them out of the NCAA Tournament - but that has improved this year. Penn State will travel to Virginia and Temple, host Virginia Tech and play in a quality tournament early that includes UNC-Wilmington, Miami and South Carolina.
"I think it's a good schedule," DeChellis said. "It's a fair schedule."
Any schedule, though, is only as good as how well the opponents live up to their expectations. DeChellis contends a number of teams on last year's schedule wound up having disappointing seasons, dragging down their RPI and Penn State's, as well.
"It's really frustrating when, on Saturday night, we win a game here and I go home and I'm up watching everybody else's scores, and hoping that the teams we're playing are going to play better or win a game," DeChellis said.
The program is further along now than it was two years ago, the coach noted, and that's something DeChellis can be proud of. There still may be many who wonder if DeChellis is the right man for the job, but the answer to that is easy: He is.
The university recently rewarded the seventh-year head coach with a three-year extension, keeping him on campus through the 2013-14 campaign.
"I love it here, I want to be here, and it's nice to know the university wants me here, as well," DeChellis said. "So I think it's been a good marriage."
Every marriage has its good years and bad years, and last year was definitely a good one for DeChellis and Penn State. But with no NCAA Tournament appearances under his belt just yet, there's clearly still work to be done.
"I don't sit here and go, 'We've arrived.' I mean, that's foolish," DeChellis said. "We're certainly better and certainly have improved our program every year."
Just a little more improvement this season would find the Lions on the favorable side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
A big dropoff from last season's production, and as Battle said, the program risks being considered a one-hit wonder.
That makes this a big, big season in the modern era of Penn State basketball.
Cory Giger can be reached at 949-7031 and firstname.lastname@example.org.