*WARNING – this is a pretty long post*
Penn State’s been taking a lot of heat for their putrid efficiency numbers, poor OOC schedule, and ‘ugly’ wins from the tempo-free fanatics and Big Ten haters all across the country. So how much of it is deserved?
It’s really tough to say. I’ll be the first to admit it. Penn State generally looks like one of the worst teams in major D-1 basketball from tipoff to 10 minutes left in the second half in the Big Ten. We have no structured offense whatsoever. It’s just a lot of one-on-one jump shooting, or Talor Battle driving and creating. If Battle isn’t on this team, we don’t win 15 games. Our one post presence has developed his game into a guard’s mentality and now believes he can drive it to the hoop like a 2-guard. While I’ll give it up to Cornley that he has been relatively successful in creating points by driving off the bounce, I will never stop cringing when watching him do it. It just looks so forced, and I would much rather watch his post moves that result in his patented jump hook. Our one true post man has shown signs this February that he can be a reliable post option. But we continually ignore him, so we won’t know how good Jones really is until next season. Our other 2 forwards have suffered through disappointing seasons and Andrew Ott is not possibly ever going to be an offensive stalwart.
So yeah, PSU is not the blueprint for offensive efficiency in the Big Ten. We rely too much for my liking on our jump shots. When they aren’t falling, we look awful (Wisconsin, @ PU, @ ILL). The question then is, how much can PSU’s offensive style and struggles be attributed to the Big Ten’s defensive-minded style of play? That’s a question that could’ve been answered in a meaningful OOC. All I know is we scored 85 points against an ACC team loaded with talent whose season had yet to collapse. Watching ACC games and the embarrassing attempts at guarding the basketball, I don’t see how PSU could struggle to score points against those teams. Not all of them, obviously, and please don’t misconstrue this as me saying if PSU played in the ACC, we’d score 80+ points a game and challenge UNC for the championship. But I think PSU’s style of play, especially offensively, is best-suited for any league outside of the Big Ten.
When DeChellis first arrived here as head coach all the way back in ’03, he stated that he wanted to bring an up-tempo style of play to Penn State and the Big Ten. After 4 years of pathetic basketball, I was wondering where the hell this up-tempo non-sense came from. You can’t run on anyone with Ben Luber as your starting point guard. But then Stanley Pringle and Talor Battle arrived on campus, and I began to believe maybe DeChellis wasn’t full of shit after all. With Frazier coming in next year, it sure looks like Ed does want to be able to get out in transition. My problem with this strategy is you have to force the tempo for it to happen, especially in this league. Dick Jerardi has said numerous times that PSU is a running team in a walking league. It’s true. But you don’t just recruit athletes and expect the tempo and style of play to change. You’ve got to make it happen. I don’t care if that means Battle goes 1 on 4 against Wisconsin when they purposely don’t crash the boards to get back on D to stop our transition game. While the shot will be terrible, it’s not like we got anything out of our ‘half-court’ offense that game. At least forcing the issue gives us more shots and opportunities to let our players make plays.
So only DeChellis knows why we average less than 60 possessions a game in this league. Maybe he’s not comfortable with our backcourt depth to force the tempo (although, I’d argue getting out and running would be at least equal amount of fatigue if not less than compared to grinding it out physically in the haf-court). Maybe he thinks we are adequately equipped to play this half-court game. I don’t have the slightest clue. The only team in this conference that can run successfully with anyone in the country is Michigan State. Michigan’s not there yet but I’d be willing to bet they’ll be another team in the future that might push it a little bit, along with Indiana, Minnesota, and Ohio State. Illinois, Northwestern, Iowa, and Wisconsin, though, will always slow it down as much as possible. Purdue’s a mystery to me. I would have guessed they’d have one of the slowest paces in the league, but they’re tied with MSU for the most (63.6). With lightning quick Lew-Jack at point guard, they might be pushing the tempo a little bit in the future, as well. Now back to MSU. We’ve scored 70+ points in both our games with the Spartans. One game was 62 possessions while the other was 65 possessions. Certainly not fast, but faster than the Big Ten’s standards. Now is it just a coincidence that we put up an offensive efficiency of 116.1 (in the win) and 112.7 (in the loss)? That’s well above our 100.0 conference average. We also put up 121.4 in 70 possessions against Georgia Tech, and we put up 109.1 in a 66 possession game against Rhode Island, despite getting a combined 7-25 from the field from Battle and Pringle.
What does this all mean? I can’t say for sure, but it hints to me the faster the game is, the prettier PSU’s offense is going to look. Don’t put too much weight in Pomeroy’s, Whelliston’s, or Sagarin’s ratings of PSU. They are a direct-effect from playing in the Big Ten. I’m going to be excited if we make the NCAAs for the simple fact that we’ll be playing a team that will not play Big Ten basketball. That’s one reason why I’ll believe PSU will make noise in the tournament.
The other reason? John Gasaway has been mesmerized by PSU’s luck rating the last 2 seasons. Last season, PSU’s efficiency numbers and scoring margin were identical to teams that typically would’ve gone 2-16 in their conference. Instead, we finished 7-11. Well, we’ve been ‘lucky‘ again this year. I’m pretty sure our combined scoring margins in the conference season have shown that we have in fact been outscored this year. Therefore, it’s pretty odd that we have a winning record in conference. It’s been so extraordinary compared to the rest of the country that Gasaway is going to start calling luck ‘DeChellis’ in our honor.
If I was him, I’d call it ‘Battle’. I love the in-depth analysis of tempo-free stats, but there is simply no measure of intangibles. How many times does a team have to achieve a feat until it’s no longer considered a statistical oddity, but the norm? These Lions just simply know how to win. They hinted at it last year. For a group of 5 first year players and a hobbled Cornley, it was stunning to watch them win their last 5 Big Ten home games (through the Claxton injury adversity). All of those wins were close and PSU, especially Battle and Jackson, made the big plays down the stretch. For the first time in my life, Penn State had a team that could win in the last 5 minutes of games. The theory of ‘play well for most of the game and hold on for dear life at the end’ no longer applied to this program as long as Talor Battle is in Blue and White.
That fact gave me most of my optimism for this year. This team knew how to win close games. Looking back on my high standards for the season, those expectations were exceeded. The number of Big Ten wins this year might have been a surprise to a lot of people, but they way in which they were won is no longer a surprise to me. Check out PSU’s close conference games this year.
- NW – W 61-57 – After scoring 21 points as a team and shooting 23% from the floor, PSU looked to rebound from a 4 point halftime deficit in the second half. NW wasn’t having it, though, as they came out and stretched their lead to 34-23. Then Talor Battle went off for 26 points and PSU hit 5 of 6 foul shots down the stretch to hold off the Wildcats
- @ Wis – L 61-65 – After finding themselves down 8, 48-40 with 10 minutes to go in the game, Pringle got hot and brought PSU all the way back to regain the lead. Wisconsin turned out to be too tough to stop (along with a killer blown loose ball foul) and PSU lost.
- PU – W 67-64 – After starting the game on a tear going up 17-2, Purdue came all the way back. They took their first lead at the eleven minute mark and stretched it to 4, 55-51. PSU refused to let the comeback get to their heads and finished off the Boilers. After a Battle turnover and PU 3 pointer, Talor came back and made a sweet dish to Andrew Jones off a drive to finish the game with 25 seconds left (66-61).
- MSU – L 73-78 – PSU simply ran out of time. After getting handled for 27 minutes, PSU came all the way back from 17 down to give themselves a few chances to take the lead. A Battle turnover (with a questionable no call) with 20 seconds left down 2 ended the comeback for the Lions.
- Iowa – W 63-59 – After once again sucking it up in the first half (just 22 points) the Lions found themselves down 14 with 10 minutes to go in the game. Cornley and Battle turned in a comeback for the ages and the Lions sneak out with yet another win.
- @ MSU – W 72-68 – This game was actually won from the beginning. Although PSU was quickly down 13 in the first half, PSU went on a 52-27 run to find themselves up comfortably. While free throw woes damn near threw the game away, Andrew Jones of all players stepped up big and sealed the win with 3 of 4 from the line in the final seconds.
- Minn – W 68-63 – Another atrocious first half, but this one was by both teams. PSU had just 24 points at the break. After going on a run and building themselves a 9 point lead, Devoe Joseph got hot for the Gophers and MN came back. They took a 3 point lead that held up until 3 minutes to go. That’s when Battle made a few plays, including the steal and and-1 conversion at the other end. (Not to be forgotten, two big free throws from David Jackson gave PSU the lead back before Battle’s steal)
- @ ILL – W 38-33 – After an embarrassing 30 minutes, PSU was now down 29-20, which seemed like a 20 point deficit with how hard it was to score in the game. Lions ended the game on a 18-4 run, and Battle sealed the game with 4-4 from stripe down the stretch.
- Ind – W 61-58 – The pesky Hoosiers never went away. After the Lions stretched their lead to 51-46 with 8 minutes to go, the Hoosiers came back to go up 57-53. PSU ended the game on a 8-1 run, capped off by an authoritative Jamelle Cornley slam that was set up by a Battle drive.
- Ill – W 64-63 – This game’s still fresh in everyone’s minds. PSU came back from down 10, 60-50, with 5 minutes to go. Andrew Jones had fouled out and Cornley had one arm. The impossibility of a comeback turned into a reality with Battle’s game winner. PSU ended the game on a 14-3 run. (2 huge David Jackson free throws were not forgotten).
- @ Iowa – L 67-75 2 OT – This was a tough one where you just got to tip your hat to Iowa. PSU’s comeback was from 9 down with just over 2 minutes to go (started with a drawn charge by David Jackson). PSU turned the 51-42 deficit into a 56-54 lead. Iowa made a layup with 10 seconds to go and PSU didn’t clear out for a Battle drive to the hoop. Battle missed the shot at the buzzer and PSU eventually ran out of gas. Iowa got some lucky banks to win in the 2nd OT.
If those quick recaps don’t tell you the mental toughness and demeanor of this basketball team, then all I can say is doubt on, my friend. Now it’s tough to deny that no luck was involved in these comebacks. Illinois and Iowa especially have had some serious meltdowns in games in the recent past. But as I said before, at what point does it no longer become a coincidence? This team has seen all forms of adversity on the basketball court. Players have gone down with injuries, big leads have evaporated, big deficits have been conquered, and PSU has conquered the adversity both on the road and at home. While PSU has certainly failed in some close games (URI, Temple, Iowa), this team is a team that belongs in the NCAA tournament. I can’t believe there’s another team out there that’s as battle-tested as us as far as close game situations and pressure environments.
However, not too many people know of PSU’s amazing accomplishments this season. They just bury themselves in those inefficient numbers, high luck ratings, and the poor SOS. The public see Penn State as a complete, overrated fluke. But if I know this basketball team, I think that’ll be just fine come March. First, we must put on our ‘fluke’ run to a Big Ten Tournament Championship! We still gotta make the NCAAs, after all. 😉