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Penn State Basketball: Winning the Battle, Losing the War

by on March 24, 2010 7:06 AM

Talor Battle was all zipped up inside his grey winter coat, wrapped up in its warmth and comfort and safety like it was a Snuggie. The coat’s hood was halfway over his head as he slouched down in his chair behind the eight-foot-long table in the Penn State basketball media room.

Huddled there, on this Saturday afternoon in mid-February, he looked neither 6-foot tall nor 170 pounds. He looked like a junior, all right -- in high school, not college. His gaze was downward, only occasionally rising to see the room of reporters.

What he looked like was this: He looked all alone. 

And, really, he was.

Minutes earlier, he had scored 30 of his team’s 54 points in a losing effort against Michigan State. He also took and made more field goals, took and made more three-pointers, took and made more free throws, and had more assists than any other Nittany Lion.

The loss was Penn State’s third in eight days. Its 11th straight in 2010. And its 12th since Christmas. The kid in front of the assembled media was definitely Battle weary.

“I, we, prepare every way we can to win the next game,” Battle said. “I hope…actually, we have to stop hoping and really believe we can close things out.”

The Nittany Lions couldn’t close things out that day. After leading 46-44 with eight minutes remaining, they lost 65-54 to No. 10 Michigan State.

Heck, they couldn’t close things out all season.

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR

Of their 20 losses in 2009-10, the Nittany Lions lost 11 games by six points or less or in overtime. They lost with stunning regularity. They were good at being bad. But good bad.

Penn State came from ahead to lose many of those games, but coach Ed DeChellis’ squad is also good at staying behind. Over the past three seasons -- including a 15-16 record in 2007-08 and that NITtany run in 2008-2009 that culminated in an 27-11 record -- Penn State is 7-35 when trailing at home at halftime.

Metaphorically speaking, the Penn State men’s basketball program is once again trailing at halftime. And Talor Battle is all by his lonesome.

Oh, sure, as DeChellis said at his postseason postmortem in the Bryce Jordan Center Tuesday, the Nittany Lions return four senior starters next season -- Battle, Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andrew Jones. They’ll face a schedule that includes Virginia Tech, the ACC-Big Ten Challenge and, most probably, a game against an SEC opponent.

“We have four seniors returning,” he said. “We have a good core group back.”

Not counting Battle, those other three seniors-to-be combined to average 23 points (Battle averaged 18.5), 14 rebounds (Battle had a team-high 5.3) and 2.8 assists (Battle had a team-high 4.2) this past season.

Battle is in a league of his own. Only two players in NCAA Division I averaged better than Battle’s typical box score per game: 18.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.0 assists. 

Even with the loss of Chris Babb and the departure of Andrew Ott (there is a difference between “loss” and “departure,” by the way), you can put the returning Nittany Lions in a good light: Penn State returns 75 percent of its points, 75 percent of its assists and 67 percent of its rebounds. Impressive.

But…

Of those totals, Battle represents 38 percent of the points, 42 percent of the assists and 23 percent of the rebounds. Scary.

BATTLE’S BURDEN

That’s a heavy load to carry. You’d think he’d need some time off before the Lions officially started their offseason training on Tuesday. Especially since minutes-wise he played the equivalent of five games more than any other teammate. Geez, when you add up the minutes played, Battle played in 10 more games than Brooks and 9.4 more than Jones.

He has to be tired, right? Tired of playing. Tired of carrying the team on his back. Tired. 

Not so, said DeChellis.

“Talor started his workouts this morning. He is more excited than ever,” said DeChellis. “He texted me several times over the weekend about how excited he was to get ready for today. It was our first day of offseason workouts. And he looked pretty good today in individual workouts. He looked strong.”

But Battle can’t be really happy. That’s a guess on my part. But how thrilled can he be about losing 20 times last season?

NO “WE” IN TEAM

What we do know is at least some of the Nittany Lions are not happy with the team dynamics. DeChellis had one-on-chats with his players over the past two weeks, and what came out that the team that loses together -- at least this one -- doesn’t feel like a team.

The Nittany Lions, who endured a dozen-game Big Ten losing streak that included an oh-for-January, didn’t feel very close-knit. Losing did not unit them. The wagons weren’t circled. They weren’t all for won…er, one.

“One thing that came out in my meetings,” said DeChellis, “was that our players felt like last year (2008-09) they were a closer-knit team off of the floor. And this year they felt they weren’t as close, that they didn’t do things with each other as much as -- now looking back at it -- they wanted to or maybe should have.”

You could see that lack of trust, that meshing, on the court, especially in the second half when it was crunch time.

Not that they lacked chemistry. “I never mentioned the word chemistry,” DeChellis said adamantly. "They just need to spend time with each other off the floor.”

What they lacked was the ability to hold things together in the final four minutes…or final fourth of a minute or final four seconds.

That’s when Battle felt compelled to take over, to take the last shot.

But he was only one guy. Battle couldn’t do it alone. Sometimes he tried. He took about three of every 10 shots by Penn State. That’s almost twice as many as the next guy, and that next guy was Babb. Now, Babb’s gone. He’ll be tougher to replace than folks realize. Babb wasn’t afraid to shoot -- beginning, middle or end of the game.

Not counting Babb, whose field goal percentage was a woeful 37.2 percent, no one on the team was within 250 shots of Battle on the season. That’s more than eight shots per game.

RECLAMATION PROJECT

The Nittany Lions have to replace more than Babb.

They must reclaim all the just-in-time-inventory fans that they energized and magnetized to the program on their five-game, 16-day march to the coveted NIT title. From JoePa to 36 buses of students, they almost all vanished in the snowstorms of the winter of 2010.

Oh, yes, Penn State can point to a net gain of 120 fans per home game in 2009-2010 vs. the previous season. And what a boon that NIT championship run was to BJC attendance -- 120 fans a game, a whopping 1,920 fans over the course of the season. Attendance was up 1.6 percent. That extra money may have paid for a banner and some T-shirts. 

They have to replace more than half of the 20 losses of 2009-2010 with wins -- at least -- if they ever hope to get to the NCAA tournament, a club that has snubbed DeChellis in all seven of his seasons at Penn State. And it’s not as if Ed doesn’t know where he hasn’t been while at Penn State (he did go Big Dancing at East Tennessee State in 2003).

Does he need to get to the NCAAs -- and soon -- to keep his job, despite a postseason vote of confidence from athletic director Tim Curley?

“I don’t make those decisions,” DeChellis said. “I can control what I can control…that’s what I focus on.

“Penn State president Graham Spanier has been supportive,” he added a little later. “Tim has been supportive. The administration has been supportive.”

The coach is 95-123 at Penn State and just came off a last-place 3-15 season. And to make matters worse, to go with the Lions’ most recent 12-game losing streak, the skeletons in their closest are 11-, 12- and 13-game losing skids since DeChellis returned to Penn State in 2003.

100-GAME FULL CIRCLE

So now Penn State is back to where it was exactly 100 games ago -- coming off an 11-19 season, which it had in 2006-07. In the three seasons since then, Penn State has been a combined 53-47, with two of three losing seasons. 

In 2007-08, Penn State had Battle, a freshman at the time. But it also had Jamelle Cornley, Geary Claxton, Danny Morrissey, Mike Walker and Stanley Pringle.

And even with that group -- minus Claxton, who got hurt midseason -- the Nittany Lions still lost more than they won, and were a poor 7-11 in the Big Ten. It took them yet another year (2008-09) to get to the NIT.

If the current Nittany Lions take the same amount of time to rebound from this most recent 11-win season, Battle won’t be around to lead the resurrection. And neither will the three other seniors.

Given the presence of Battle’s half-brother, Taran Buie, the Nittany Lions may still have some fight in them.

But they won’t have Battle. And, quite possibly, DeChellis will have lost the war.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and 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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