Friday, April 15, 2011

Season Obituaries: Penn State

Every team that falls on hard times develops certain fans--some would call them cynics; they would no doubt prefer to be called realists--for which every minor success is just a reminder of how low other fans' standards have fallen. This especially happens at schools that have fantastic success in other popular sports but can't seem to convert that in a particular area. Having tasted victory elsewhere, those fans simply cannot be content knowing that they may never reach those heights.

Penn State is a top-class football program, with multiple football national championships within (most of) our lifetimes and plenty of success in other popular sports (the women's volleyball team is a dynasty, while the wrestling program is also quite good). Yet, for whatever reason, the men's basketball team has consistently been one of the two worst squads in the Big Ten (along with Northwestern). 

After seven seasons, a large contingent of Nittany Lions fans--not just the cynics--began wondering whether perhaps it was time for head coach Ed DeChellis to move on to better things, like coaching at Rhode Island. The only highlight of the DeChellis era had been a fourth place finish and an NIT Championship (which itself would be treated as something of a joke at many other Big Ten schools). By February, after a three game conference losing streak in a season that saw Penn State lose to Maine and Ole Miss, it looked as though the skeptics would win out.

The end-of-regular-season turnaround, if it can be called that, wasn't very stunning: the Nittany Lions went 4-2 down the stretch, but two of those wins came over a Minnesota team in a helpless tailspin without a point guard, and the other two came over an OK Northwestern team. Neither of the two losses in that span, to Wisconsin and Ohio State, was particularly impressive, and Penn State--now 9-9 yet somehow tied for fourth in the conference after Michigan State's and Illinois's swoon--was placed on the "heaven and earth will have to fall to make the tournament" lists. A close win over Indiana in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament wasn't a source of much confidence.

Heaven and Earth didn't fall, but even better for Penn State fans, Wisconsin and Michigan State did. The Wisconsin game was the source of many guffaws, the second time in three years that Penn State had played a ranked opponent in a game where neither squad made it into the 40s, but the Michigan State game confirmed that the Badgers contest wasn't simply a low-possession fluke. With other bubble teams losing to teams like Indiana State, the Nittany Lions won the Bubble Battle Royale and sneaked into the tournament.

All for what, the cynics ask? Losing four starters this year, and with their best recruit in years now perhaps permanently off the team, this late season run isn't much of a foundation upon which DeChellis can build. If anything, they assert, it shows his limitations; a team with four starters couldn't make it out of the Round of 64 (or, ugh, the second round). There's a certain "heightening the contradictions" feel to their argument that hardline Communists used in the olden days whenever social reforms were proposed: why make things slightly more tolerable when the entire system is rotten to the core? Why celebrate a minor success when it will only prolong the program's misery?

Well, I can think of at least one reason. Talor Battle is the type of player, and the type of person, of which you'd want to recruit 13 for your program and hope a couple more walk on. He had an annoying habit, at least annoying to his victims, of coming up big in the worst possible moments. He'd take impossible shots--fall away three pointers, contested shots from 35 feet (no hyperbole)--and somehow hit them. Not all of them, of course, but enough that you swear that the next one was certain to go in. In fact, if that final, desperation shot from 70 feet away against Temple didn't hit the Jumbotron--if only the architecture was a bit different--I think that ball had a 50-50 chance of going in. Sure, that defies logic, but Battle often defied logic, and he did it with an infectious smile even during the darkest moments (that he even bothered to return for his senior season when other similarly situated players on other teams bolted is just another reason to cheer him forward). Whatever else can be said about the 2011 Penn State basketball season, Battle getting to experience the postseason--the real postseason--at least once makes it successful, and I can't imagine wishing that away because it might mean the 2013 team is better under a different coach.