I still remember the day Ed DeChellis resigned as head coach of Penn State. I was on a cruise ship and my friend and I had ESPN on in the cabin as we were getting ready for dinner. When the report came through that DeChellis was leaving for Navy of all places, the two of us were shocked. Instead of continuing the momentum he built by finally taking the Lions to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years, DeChellis was going to a program that will probably never reach the big dance during his tenure. That part of the deal was frustrating, but there was also hope that Penn State might hire an even better coach that could rebuild the program faster than DeChellis did. The jury might still be out on Pat Chambers, but the fact remains that the Lions haven’t played in the NIT or the NCAA Tournament in the six seasons since DeChellis bolted for Annapolis.
Since Jerry Dunn left the program in shambles, it’s hard to blame DeChellis for going 3-13 during his first year of Big Ten play. At least he was getting young guys like Marlon Smith and Ben Luber valuable playing time. The two combined to form one of the least efficient backcourts in the country while providing sophomore big man Aaron Johnson with plenty of rebounding opportunities. Even though the offense was miserable and Penn State was ousted by Northwestern in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, the foundation for a better team appeared to be set.
Unfortunately, despite the offense being less horrible in DeChellis’s second season, the team won two fewer games, with just one victory coming in Big Ten play. There were some bright spots, such as the emergence of freshman star Geary Claxton and a dominant rebounding campaign by Johnson, but the backcourt of the future fell apart. Smith missed most of the season and ended up leaving the program due to a blood clot in his brain, while Luber averaged just six points per game and created more turnovers than assists. The sad campaign ended with a surprisingly close loss to Ohio State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Momentum finally began turning in the right direction in 2006. DeChellis’s Lions went 6-10 in conference play and won a Big Ten Tournament game for the first time in the coach’s tenure to earn an NIT berth. While that only resulted in a home loss to Rutgers, this season was all about the journey and not the destination. Along the way to a mediocre finish, Penn State went on the road and defeated a top-10 Illinois team that was one year removed from a Final Four run. It was one of those magical moments that only the die-hard fans remember because Penn State still wasn’t very good and most people had better things to do.
Besides that incredible upset, the best parts of this season were watching Claxton continue to develop as a star player while freshman Jamelle Cornley and junior college transfer Travis Parker provided the rebounding and inside presence on offense that was missed when Johnson departed.
This year was a major disappointment as the Lions won just two Big Ten games despite having more experienced versions of Claxton, Cornley, Luber, and sharpshooter Mike Walker on board. With Walker combining his powers with sophomore Danny Morrissey, the Lions were a decent three-point shooting team for the first time in years, but a porous field goal defense and the lack of a shot-blocking presence doomed them to an 11-19 overall record. The most exciting game in this campaign was a loss at home to an Ohio State team that started two top-five NBA Draft picks in Greg Oden and Mike Conley. Although Penn State trailed by double digits at the half, DeChellis’s resilient squad battled back and came inches away from a stunning upset when Walker’s three-point attempt clanged off the rim with zeros on the clock.
With the advantage of an 18-game Big Ten slate, DeChellis set a career high with seven conference wins in 2008. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to qualify for the NIT despite quality victories over Michigan State, an Indiana team featuring Eric Gordon, and Illinois (twice). The campaign could have turned out much differently had Claxton not suffered an ACL tear in a January game at Wisconsin. When he went down, the senior forward was looking like one of the top players in the Big Ten with 17.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. The silver lining to Claxton’s absence for the majority of Big Ten play was the extra experience gained by freshman guard Talor Battle, who was asked to pick up some of the scoring load and ended up with 10.2 points and 3.2 assists per game.
Claxton may have graduated, but Battle was back, and he broke through in a major way during his sophomore season. The scoring guard from Albany led the Lions with 16.7 points and 5.0 assists per game. That was nearly enough to get Penn State into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in the DeChellis era, but the Lions were doomed by a soft non-conference slate as well as a double-overtime loss at Iowa in the regular season finale. Teams that go 10-8 in the Big Ten and barely miss out on the big dance aren’t supposed to lose in the first round of the NIT, but that came very close to happening to Penn State. Lucky for us, Battle was there to save the day.
The Lions would end up winning in overtime and starting a five-game winning streak that culminated with an NIT championship in Madison Square Garden. The combination of Battle, Cornley, and junior college transfer Stanley Pringle was the driving force behind the best offense Penn State had fielded under DeChellis, and that offense clicked down the stretch to create wins over national powers Notre Dame and Baylor.
Cornley, Pringle, and Morrissey all graduated after the 2008-09 campaign, so the program was bound to take a step backwards, but few predicted that a Battle-led team would start 0-12 in Big Ten play en route to a 20-loss rebuilding season. It turned out that freshman point guard Tim Frazier and junior wing Jeff Brooks weren’t quite ready to give Battle the support he needed, but these Lions showed growth at the end of the season with wins in three of their last seven games as well as close defeats to powerful Michigan State and Purdue squads.
Penn State showed that it meant business in 2011 by rolling off consecutive wins over ranked Illinois and Michigan State teams in early January before scoring a huge victory over Wisconsin at the end of the month. With Frazier taking over a lot of the point guard duties, Battle was free to play off the ball and free himself up for more three-point attempts. The result was Battle’s best season yet, as he scored 20.2 points per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range. Jeff Brooks also stepped up in a major way. He showed potential in his first three years in the program, but in 2011 he finally turned into a major player with 13.1 points per game compared to only 7.4 in his junior season.
When you add in the contributions of big men David Jackson and Andrew Jones, the Lions had a starting five that was capable of competing with the best teams in the Big Ten on any given night. Unfortunately, a 9-9 Big Ten record and another soft non-conference resume had Penn State on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture when the Big Ten Tournament tipped off on March 10. In order to reach the big dance for the first time in the DeChellis era, the Lions would have to play their best basketball of the season. Save for a 36-33 win over Wisconsin that was ugly for both sides (but had a beautiful result), that’s exactly what they did.
Many a bracketologist believed the Lions to be safe when they upset Wisconsin for the second time, but just to be sure, they went out and ousted Michigan State for good measure in the tournament semifinals. A win over one of Thad Matt’s best ever Ohio State teams in the final wasn’t in the cards, but Penn State had already done plenty to ensure an NCAA bid.
Considering how the team played in the Big Ten Tournament, I still think that 2011 team had more than enough in it to make the Sweet 16, but instead we got a heartbreaking loss to Temple in Tucson, Arizona. Nevertheless, the thrilling campaign made it look like Penn State Basketball was on the rise.
Everything came to a halt, though, when DeChellis shockingly left the program. With four of five starters graduating and 2011 top recruit (and Battle’s brother) Taran Buie being booted from the program for misconduct, new head coach Pat Chambers faced an uphill battle to get the Lions back to prominence. Frazier developing into a star player and eventual NBA rotation guy helped, as did the addition of Souther Mississippi transfer D.J. Newbill, but the Lions haven’t gotten back to the heights that DeChellis brought the program to.
We might not be able to say that for long, though. Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and Mike Watkins are as talented a trio as we’ve seen wear the blue and white, so Chambers might have his long-awaited moment sooner rather than later. Don’t worry, there’s still room left on the bandwagon.