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Penn State Basketball: A Brief Celebration for NCAA-Bound DeChellis

by on March 14, 2011 6:37 PM

It was Sunday night in Indianapolis for the Penn State men’s basketball team. Their NCAA Tournament-saving three victories in four Big Ten tournament games were over.

The CBS Selection Show’s obligatory TV shot had run, showing the Nittany Lions’ celebration after the announcement of their seed (10th), bracket (West), opponent (No. 7 Temple), site (Tucson, Ariz.) and play date (Thursday).

The players’ hugging and chanting was recorded for posterity; the few celebratory private moments coach Ed DeChellis had stolen to thank his assistants were past.

Even DeChellis’ funny tagline for the four-game, four-day tournament was a worn-out memory: “I got four pairs of underwear and I want to use them all.”

(On Sunday, after slightly miraculously reaching the championship game, where they fell 71-60 to No. 1 Ohio State, DeChellis amended that to: “I’m all out of underwear. Let’s go home…and bring the trophy along with us.”)

So, on Sunday night, the Nittany Lions’ entourage loaded a bus for the Indianapolis International Airport, just a dozen miles from the Conseco Field House. The court there was their second home for the weekend, producing victories over Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan State that propelled Penn State into its first NCAA Tournament in a decade.

As the players climbed onto the plane, tired but anxious to return to Happy Valley after a Spring Break well-spent, DeChellis did what he had done all season long -- he kept them on task.

“Enjoy the flight home, the next 59 minutes. That’s it,” the coach said to his players.

It was a mantra that Talor Battle, the Lions’ senior leader and all-time top scorer and arguably (albeit a quick one) the best player in Penn State basketball history, had heard before.

“ ‘Stay the course.’ That’s Coach’s line,” Battle said. “Never get too high, never get too low. All season long, through everything that happened, we stayed the course.”

So when the plane’s course was set for State College, Battle couldn’t have been surprised with what DeChellis said to his team.

On the plane, DeChellis huddled with assistants Kurt Kanaskie and Danny Earl to start preparations for Temple. Earl had already printed off some stats at Conseco.

The aura of bracketology remained until the plane took off. That’s all.

The team arrived at University Park Airport, where it was met by about 60 family members and ardent boosters, a Daily Collegian photographer and a Penn State student stringing for a Pittsburgh newspaper.

From there, despite the evening’s hour, they went straight to the Bryce Jordan Center, their home for 149 days since the official start of basketball season – give or take a Bon Jovi rehearsal or six.

They filed into a room and for the next 10 minutes, DeChellis gave them his new rallying cry:

“Focus. It’s whole new tournament. This one is two games. If we don’t beat Temple, they’ll ask us to go home.”

THE SLATE IS CLEAN

The previous 33 games didn’t matter – not the 19 victories, not the tournament march. Not the 21-day, six-game January run that included wins over ranked Michigan State, Illinois and Wisconsin, as well as Iowa, plus losses to national powers Purdue and Ohio State by a total of four points.

Even the 75-64 loss on Dec. 21 to Maine in a BJC car wreck witnessed by 4,174 onlookers. It was a defeat that everyone said might have killed Penn State’s NCAA chances. Doesn’t count. Not now, anyway.

That was the low point for the Nittany Lions, who start four seniors. Their final season was almost over before they started it.

“When we lost to Maine,” Battle said on Monday, eyeballing the assembled media in the BJC, “everyone in this room counted us out, I’m pretty sure. You look at the guys here” – meaning Battle and senior forward Jeff Brooks, sitting beside him – “we probably did, too.”

Remember the Maine? No one let them forget it.

Penn State was nearly sunk before it started. When the new year started, the Nittany Lions were deathly afraid – for good reason – that in 14 weeks the NCAA selection committee wouldn’t forget their non-con losses to Maryland, Mississippi and Virgina Tech by a combined 46 points.

“We weren’t on the bubble,” Battle said. “We were just playing. Everyone forgot about us.”

The hometown goodwill of their 27-victory march to the NIT championship in 2009 had lost its glow under the shadow of an 11-20 record in 2009-2010. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, the Penn State boobirds were starting to suggest that maybe DeChellis should fly the coup.

Then the Nittany Lions won 12 of their last 22 games. They needed every victory – including Saturday’s 61-48 victory over Michigan State in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.

“We’ve been on a one-and-done run for the past several weeks,” DeChellis said. “The pressure’s been on the kids a long time.”

They didn’t crack.

Maybe it’s just coincidence that the NCAA selection committee was holed up in an Indianapolis hotel while the Big Ten tourney was going on nearby (probably; the NCAA offices are based in Indy). But it certainly didn’t hurt that when they picked up the Indianapolis Star every morning, there was Penn State. Still in it.

DECHELLIS STAYED THE COURSE

And so is DeChellis. Still.

This is his eighth season as the Nittany Lions’ head coach. He inherited a mess from his predecessor (and former co-worker) Jerry Dunn, as nice a guy as Ed is. Under Dunn, the Nittany Lions had back-to-back 7-21 seasons.

But they also went to the NCAA Tournament twice. Their trip in 2001 lasted three games, past North Carolina and into the semifinals. And that was against Temple, of all teams.

In fact, the last team Penn State played in the NCAA Tournament was Temple. The next team that Penn State faces in the NCAA Tournament is Temple.

By the time they meet again, 3,646 days will have passed between contests. (It only seemed liked 5.25 million minutes.)

And Penn State’s record during that time was 128-179. Under DeChellis, it’s been 114-137.

But over the last four seasons – the life of this senior class of Battle, Brooks, Andrew Jones and David Jackson – Penn State has been 57-45. Not great, but a 55.8 winning percentage. It tooks a bit like Joe Paterno’s old Cycle Theory – building so a team contends every four years.

Now, it’s true Penn State has lost to Ohio State 15 consecutive games. And the 2011 Nittany Lions rank near the nation’s bottom 10 in bench points.

But now’s not the time to pick Nits. Now is the time, said Battle, to sing the praises of his coach for what he does on the floor, not just the considerable good he has done off of it.

“This is huge for Coach,” Battle said. “Making the NCAA Tournament is big for him. Hopefully, he can get an extension (of his contract) for that. People always wonder what’s going to happen to Coach. This should solidity things.

“Coach has done a great job.”

In 2011, for sure. And truer still if the Nittany Lions beat the boxer shorts off of Temple on Thursday.

TOURNAMENT NOTES

The game will start at 2:10 p.m. Eastern Time and will be broadcast on TNT. That’s 11:10 a.m. in Arizona, so to get adjusted to the early tip-off, PSU will practice at 11 a.m. on Wednesday. They fly to Arizona on Tuesday.

The winner of the Penn State-Temple game, to be played in the University of Arizona's McKale Center, will face the winner of the match-up between No. 2 San Diego State and No. 15 Northern Colorado, on Saturday.

Temple and Penn State met in a scrimmage in the preseason, and by all accounts, the Owls’ inside play got the better of the Lions. Asked on Monday what the score was, Battle replied: “Score? It was a scrimmage. You don’t keep score in a scrimmage.”

THE SERIES

The two teams last met in a real game on Dec. 5, 2009, at Temple’s Liacouras Center, with Temple winning 45-42. Temple holds a 59-32 advantage all-time against its former Eastern 8 and Atlantic-10 Conference rivals. The Owls have a 4-1 edge over the Nittany Lions in neutral-site games, which includes an 84-72 win in the 2001 NCAA Tournament South Region semifinals.

Penn State is making its ninth NCAA Tournament appearance all-time and first since 2001, when the Nittany Lions advanced to the Sweet 16. That year, Penn State was a No. 7 seed in the South Region and defeated Providence (69-59) and No. 2 seed North Carolina (82-74) before falling to Temple in the Sweet Sixteen.

TEMPLE

The Owls (25-07) lost 58-54 to eventual champion Richmond in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament. They had won the tournament, and the automatic NCAA bid that went with it, the previous three years. It is their 29th appearance in the NCAA Tournament.

Led by fifth-year coach Fran Dunphy, Temple enters the tournament winners of 12 out of their last 14 contests. Senior Lavoy Allen leads the team in rebounding (8.4 per game) and ranks second in scoring, with 11.8 per game. Junior guard Ramone Moore leads Temple in scoring, with 14.9 points per game.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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