March 22, 2011

And So It Begins: Life Without Talor

*This is the first of three posts that will wrap-up the 2010-2011 basketball season and take a look at the state of the program. The second post will be released on Thursday.

That was a fairly cruel, undeserved ending to the brilliant career of Talor Battle, but I was proud of the effort of everyone involved. That includes Fran Dunphy, a classy coach who has long deserved to win an NCAA game. That was one hell of a performance and a perfect example of the magnificence of March Madness. Penn State played very well despite a physically and mentally draining BTT run last week, Jeff Brooks re-injury, and their first NCAA tournament action ever. They gave it their all, and I have no doubt the outcome would've been different if Fernandez's miracle was just a brick. It sounded like Talor was ready to go into Seton Hall mode in the potential overtime period.

I'm gonna miss tackling this guy.
PHOTO: Luke Winn/SI
But after that punch in the gut, I've begun to reflect on what this class is leaving behind. These seniors are departing with 14,518 minutes played in 536 games (between the 4 of them, they missed just 3 games in 4 years!). We can go on and on about all of the stats and records these guys have accumulated. There have been so many highs and lows, but the ride is over. I don't know how disappointed I'd feel for these guys if they weren't in the NCAA tournament this year. They were at least rewarded for their hard work with a taste of March Madness, which is more than Jamelle Cornley or Geary Claxton can say.

However, now that it is all over, I thought we'd be in a better position than this as a program. I thought back in April 2009 that this class was going to bridge the gap between Cornley/Claxton and a consistent basketball team. But as it stands now, Penn State will be returning just 31.1% of their minutes, 19.6% of their points, and 22.2% of their rebounds from this year. Unlike after the 2009 NIT Championship, excitement for next year is pretty scarce. This class was suppose to be the foundation to bigger and better things, and while they did reach the NCAA tournament this season, the berth is looking a lot more like a pinnacle than a stepping stone. This isn't how it was suppose to be.

The 2009 NIT championship was so meaningful at the time because it gave the program a breath of fresh air. While some important pieces to that championship were graduating, there was a solid core of 7 players who were returning with experience. Not only were they returning, but they all had 2 years of eligibility remaining. Penn State was suppose to have the same team for 2 straight years, along with the infusion of promising recruits like Tim Frazier and Jermaine Marshall. It was the perfect situation - enough talent and experience returning to be competitive, along with plenty of time for growth and development. The dream was for PSU to stay relevant with an NIT-type season in 09-10, return everyone, and make a run at the Big Ten title in 10-11 with Buie. The program's success would breed bigger and better opportunities on the recruiting trail, so that the program could continue to bring in better talent.

Everything was going to plan in the fall of 2009. The staff was taking advantage of the momentum/exposure of the NIT championship. Top-100 recruits were not only visiting (Malcolm Gilbert, Desmond Hubert, Amile Jefferson, Savon Goodman), but committing (Trey Burke). It looked like the dream plan might become a reality. But then the 12 game losing streak happened, and PSU went back in anonymity in the recruiting world. The visits stopped and not shortly thereafter, PSU wasn't even mentioned with those recruits anymore. The one lone commit then went back on his verbal and has since signed on to Michigan.

I can't help but think about the what-ifs that were brought on with the 2009-2010 disaster. What if PSU didn't inexplicably blow leads against Michigan and Wisconsin last year? Would they have not fallen into a sea of hopelessness during that 12 game streak and finished the season strong? What if Jeff Brooks 'woke up' last season instead? What if Chris Babb, Bill Edwards, and Andrew Ott didn't transfer? What if Trey Burke had stayed committed? Where would this program be today?

The turmoil within the program in March 2010 left the Lions with significantly less depth, a few unexpected open scholarships, and absolutely no ammo to recruit with. 'Come play for a program that just finished last in its conference with a 7th year coach who has never made an NCAA tournament at the school,' doesn't sound very appealing to prospects. The Lions were obviously unable to sign any impact guys that could contribute from day 1 this year (although they did snag Bowman and Graham).

The Nittany Lions came into this season with the four usual suspects, Tim Frazier, Taran Buie, and a whole lot of nothing else. Expectations were understandably low, as they were seemingly picked 9th in the Big Ten in every major publication. The fact that these guys were able to bounce back from last season and earn a trip to the NCAA tournament is pretty remarkable. It's even more impressive when they did it with essentially just 5 guys all season (PSU ranks 343rd in bench minutes). Then you have to consider all of the in-season adversity that was overcome with Buie's suspension, the non-conference eggs against Maryland and Maine, and Jeff Brooks' shoulder injury. I couldn't be prouder of the seniors and am so happy they were able to salvage their careers in the Big Ten tournament and reach their ultimate goal.

But the fact that last Thursday was the culmination of their careers is a disappointment from where it looked just two years ago. It's not so much about their loss in the first round, but more of how uncertain the future looks. I'll never forget what these guys had to do to earn the elusive NCAA berth, but it shouldn't have been this hard. I'll always have to wonder what could have been with these guys. It's even more frustrating when I realize that most of the circumstances and situations they had to overcome was not a result of their own doing. And the millionaire mostly responsible for the hole that was dug? He gets to reap the benefits' of the players' hard work by getting to keep his job.

Be sure to check back Thursday as we take a look at DeChellis' second chance, and what he needs to do to take advantage of it.

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1 comment:

  1. This is why getting Eric was a huge win for the site.