Many are calling 2011 a make-or-break season for Penn State basketball. Seniors Talor Battle, David Jackson, Andrew Jones and Jeff Brooks are all on their way out of the program after three up and down seasons in Happy Valley. Coach Ed DeChellis could very well follow them if his veteran laden team fails to achieve anything less than a post-season berth after a disappointing 2010. Prized recruit and Battle's half-brother Taran Buie could join him and transfer after playing only a year with big bro if the Lions struggle.
Needless to say, there's a lot on the line.
Starting today "next year" becomes "this year" for Penn State basketball, as the athletic department announced the Nittany Lions' non-conference schedule on Wednesday. We now know the first steps Penn State will have to take in building a post-season resume, and perhaps the very future of the program.
If you're looking for headliners, there are plenty, including a home contest with ACC co-champ Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, trips to Mississippi and Virginia Tech, and in-state battles with A-10 foes St. Josephs and Duquesne.
But before we get to an early look at some of the opponents, let's start with a general overview of the product as a whole.
No Early Season Tournament
The first thing that jumps off the page this season is the lack of an out of conference tournament. As Al Michaels might say, early season tournaments have been the bane of Penn State's existence in recent years, so it's no surprise the team isn't scheduled for one this year (though it was at one point before pulling out of the 76 Classic).
In 2007-08, the Nittany Lions turned in an 0-3 performance at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando Florida, losing to South Carolina, Rider and Central Florida in a span of four days.
In 2008-09, things got a little better, but not really. The Lions went 3-1 in the Philly Hoops classic, beating RPI drainer NJIT then Hartford, putting them in position to play Villanova with a win over Rhode Island. Unfortunately, the Lions dropped that contest 77-72 at the Palestra and were forced to play lowly Towson instead. Having a quality opponent like 'nova factoring into the equation, even had the Lions lost, might have been the difference between NIT and NCAA Tournament that season.
Finally, last season Penn State ran into another disaster, losing to UNC-Wilmington and Tulane at the Charleston Classic, beating only Davidson in the team's last game of the tournament.
Tournaments usually give teams the chance to see some quality out of conference competition to brush up for their league schedules and build tournament resumes, but far too often recently, these events have broken Penn State's momentum. It's probably a good idea, especially with this group of players to be avoiding them this season.
Penn State plays nine of its 11 non-conference games at the Bryce Jordan Center, a product of not traveling to play an early season tournament.
Though two of the toughest tests in the non-league schedule (Mississippi and Virginia Tech) will be played on the road, it's certainly an advantage for Penn State that the rest of the contests are at home, especially when tangling with some teams that could quietly knock them off.
This could be Nittany Nation's time to shine.
The schedule is by no means a killer, but there are enough solid teams on it that you can't really accuse anyone of protecting Ed DeChellis's job by loading up on cupcakes and layup wins.
Penn State is going to have its hands full more than once with this slate, and while that could sink the Lions early, it'll also be a big momentum boost heading into Big Ten play of they can do well with it and win the games their supposed to while upsetting a couple more along the way.
Now the schedule.
The Mountain Hawks won the Patriot League last year and gave Kansas all it could handle for a while as a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament. With a lot of talent returning, this is hardly the roll-over-and-die kind of team you tend to see in season openers.
Guard C.J. McCollum is a 19-point per game scorer who can grab some boards (third on the team with five RPG) and hit shots from the perimeter (72-171, 42%), so it'll be important for Penn State to contain him if the Lions want to start off with a win.
St. Joseph's-November 16
The Hawks struggled in a loaded Atlantic-10 last season to an 11-20 record, beating out only La Salle and Forham in the conference standings.
There's really no reason Penn State should lose this game with a veteran team, but St. Joseph is hardly a gimme.
Quietly solid in the MAAC, putting up a 23-11 record, good for second place in the league.
The Stags return top scorer Derek Needham at 16.4 PPG, and beyond Anthony Johnson and his 16.1 points/9.8 rebounds, most of the other production comes back, too.
If you rolled your eyes when you saw the name, shame on you. This squad will be a tough out, and if Penn State is going to make a run at the tournament, a win against Fairfield will be nice to have.
Central Connecticut State-November 22
This is the first real "gimme" on Penn State's schedule, and the Lions should handle the Devils pretty easily.
At Mississippi-November 26
Penn State's first road trip will bring the toughest test of the young season when the Lions head south.
Ole Miss returns three double figure scorers headlined by guard Chris Warren, who averaged over 17 PPG in 2010.
The Rebels finished fourth in the SEC last year behind Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, and lost to Dayton in NIT semifinals.
As a road game against a solid opponent like Ole Miss, this will be a tough one for Penn State, but this team has walked into some tough unfamiliar buildings before and come out with wins, so don't be surprised if Penn State can catch an RPI boosting victory here. Of the Lions' games with BCS level programs, this one is probably the most winnable.
Though the Paladins return a lot of scoring, there's not much to see here. This team really shouldn't pose much of a threat, having finished seventh in the Southern Conference at 13-17. Another gimme, but right in the middle of Penn State's toughest stretch of non-conference games.
Though this matchup looks by far the sexiest on the non-conference slate, Maryland won't be as tough on paper as it was in 2010 when the Terrapins shared the ACC title.
Much of the top scoring departs, including the intrepid Greivis Vasquez, who averaged close to 20 PPG last season.
That said, it's still going to be very tough for Penn State to overcome a foe the stature of Maryland, home or away. It's doable though.
Yet another young team returning a lot of its scoring that could give Penn State some trouble.
The Dukes finished .500 at 15-15 in a tough Atlantic-10 last year, and behind young guys like Damian Saunders, who is one of five Duquesne players that average in double figures last year, they'll be looking to improve on that finish.
What does that mean for Penn State? Well, possibly the same thing it meant for another team on its level last year...
Beyond the big three of Ole Miss, Maryland and Virginia Tech, this might be Penn State's toughest non-conference matchup.
Mount St. Mary's-December 7
The Mountaineers were a decent team in 2010, finishing up with a 16-15 record, good for third in the NEC behind Robert Morris and Quinnipiac.
The team loses three of its top five scorers, however, and should be one of the easier gets on the schedule for Penn State.
At Virginia Tech-December 12
Bad news for those who still have Malcolm Delaney and his 27 points against Penn State at the Jordan Center in December running through their nightmares: he's coming back for his senior year and will be waiting for the Nittany Lions in Blacksburg.
Delaney rejoins a squad that brings back a lot of last year's production, and is going to be very tough to beat, especially on the road.
The good news for Penn State is that the Lions played the Hokies right down to the very end in Happy Valley last year, and were a missed Talor Battle layup from overtime before losing 66-64.
Certainly a beatable team at the end of the non-conference, but good enough to put up a good fight, and fortunate to be meeting Penn State 10 days following the Lions' last game.
Should be a nice opponent to get rid of the rust with and build some momentum with heading into conference play.
Ok, and now the million dollar question: What can we expect from Penn State in the non-conference?
If last year is any indication, craziness.
Seriously, though, this schedule is about as up-in-the-air as any in the last few years. Penn State could win big, but could also lose big putting together a slate like this. No team jumps out on paper, but several of the non-BCS schools could be just as likely to knock Penn State out as your Virginia Techs or Marylands.
That said, my prediction for now is 8-3. That could change in the weeks ahead, but at the moment, I think it's the reasonable estimate.
A lot to like about this schedule. Not too hard, not to soft, just about perfect for Penn State at the moment. That could change tomorrow, of course, depending upon the news, but at the moment, Penn State looks ok.