Earlier this week, Jared touched upon the football team’s devastating gut-punch of an upset loss at Iowa during an otherwise memorable 2008 season. What many Penn State fans may not realize (or have otherwise forgotten) is that just a few short months later, Iowa would once again ruin big dreams being harbored by a Penn State team, this time on the hardwood in early March.
Setting The Stage
The 2008-2009 campaign saw PSU return several key players from a team that while finishing just under .500 overall at 15-16 the year before, showed promise with a few shocking upsets over Michigan State and Indiana (right before the bottom fell out from Kelvin Sampson’s recruiting scandal that ultimately decimated IU’s roster). Speedy sharpshooters Talor Battle and Stanley Pringle led PSU’s backcourt while the undersized (at 6’5”) but versatile Jamelle Cornley anchored the Nittany Lions’ frontcourt, sparking the much-loved term ‘Cornley Smash.’
PSU made it through their cupcake-fest of a non-conference schedule sporting an 11-2 overall record heading into Big Ten play, which ended up being quite the roller coaster ride in and of itself, culminating with Talor Battle’s coast-to-coast shot ‘heard round the college hoops world to earn a critical sweep over Illinois. With one regular season game remaining at a middling Iowa team that was stuck in the midst of the Todd Lickliter era, Penn State’s path to a tournament bid could not have looked more clear and passable...
Effing Jake Kelly
Less than 48 hours removed from PSU traveled to Iowa City for its final Big Ten regular season game, sporting a 21-9 overall and 10-7 conference record. Due to a very weak non-conference schedule, pundits and bracketologists had PSU squarely on the bubble and likely needing one more win to solidify a spot in the NCAA tournament. That alone should have been enough motivation for this team to finish the deed, tired legs be damned.
Of course, there was a bigger problem than just tired legs: His name was Jake Kelly, and he just could not miss that night. Kelly would go on to finish with 22 points, including four 3-pointers and PSU would find itself playing catch-up for the majority of the contest. It was only in the game’s final two and a half minutes and trailing by nine points did PSU finally wake up, going on a run that would ultimately force overtime. Unfortunately, Kelly’s hot shooting continued into the overtime period and would ultimately be the difference-maker, allowing Iowa to win it 75-69 in two overtimes. That’s not even the worst part, actually, because Kelly would end up transferring to Indiana State just a few short weeks later (you know, instead of just leaving the team mid-season in order to transfer).
Penn State would go on to recover from this tough loss to dispatch an Indiana squad that was having a horrendous six-overall-wins season with a roster mostly comprised of freshmen or former walk-ons, in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. They would however, lose to Purdue handily in the next round. A win over Purdue certainly would’ve helped their standing with the selection committee, but it was not to be, as the committee would wind up keeping PSU out of the 65-team field, due in part to a weak schedule.
What Could’ve Been
Had PSU not stumbled and took care of business at Iowa, they would have harbored an 22-9 overall and 11-7 mark in Big Ten play, which would’ve put them in a three-way tie for second place with Illinois and Purdue, two teams PSU owned tiebreakers over. Thus, PSU would have earned the number two seed and a first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. More importantly, PSU would have avoided playing RPI-killer Indiana for a third time. Granted at this point, no matter how Charmin-soft the schedule had been, it would be difficult to imagine the NCAA tournament selection committee finding a valid excuse to turn down a team that finished as a runner-up in a power five conference during the regular season.
I’m not going to pretend like making the tourney that year would have changed the trajectory of Penn State Basketball for the long-term, given that Ed DeChellis and staff were limited in their recruiting connections. However, presuming that the team would still go on to qualify for the 2011 NCAA tournament, making it into two tournaments in the last three years would have been a big freakin’ deal for a program that had only made the tourney three times between 1991 and 2001 (and only once in the preceding 25 years). Certainly, Ed would have gotten himself a contract extension and perhaps some of those Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens-caliber recruits would have started to take notice themselves of that rising program in Happy Valley.
Okay, perhaps not, but it’s Summer time, which means writing posts about things that I think about when the power goes out in my apartment and I’m left to just twiddling my thumbs.