Here are a few quick bits to take from the 12 non-conference results for Penn State (8-4) this season:
-With Penn State's RPI hovering over 200, the team's four non-conference losses are poised to prevent the Lions from an at-large tournament appearance. A weak non-conference schedule last year hindered PSU from an NCAA Tournament berth and this year, with a mediocre November tournament, only two road games and only one challenging home game on the slate in non-conference play, Ed DeChellis and Co. could not afford to lose many games.
-Penn State, for the most part, has taken care of business against bottom of the barrel teams. As a matter of fact--Pennsylvania (0-7, #345), UMBC (1-9, #337) and American (2-10, #340) are three of the worst eleven teams in the country. Penn State defeated all three, but not very convincingly for the entirety of each respective game. Add close calls against Sacred Heart, Virginia and Davidson and you really begin to worry as a Penn State fan. Anyway, wins are wins.
-However, the losses to Tulane and UNC-Wilmington in the Charleston Classic are inexplicable losses that are bound to cause irreparable damage to a teams resume. Barring a 10-12 victory Big Ten campaign or a magical run in the BTT, Penn State will not be playing in the NCAA Tournament. The Big Ten is top-heavy with Purdue, Michigan State and Wisconsin leading the pack, but those three teams are followed by hungry teams like Northwestern, Minnesota and Ohio State who have done their part so far this year to prove that they are high-caliber teams. Penn State, who lost two of its top three scorers from 08-09 (Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle) has clearly not proved that and, thus, there is little room for error from this point forward--especially in winnable games.
-The Lions have looked shaky in many games this year, as the coaching staff continues to feel out the rotation and get young players like Chris Babb, Tim Frazier and Bill Edwards more reps in the rotation. However, three of Penn State's four losses this year have been by three points or less (Temple, Tulane and VT). If the coaching staff can refine the rotation and develop some consistency in these players, those crucial mistakes down the stretch would decrease, and more of those situations would result in conversions and, more importantly, wins. The Big Ten season is a clean slate that will ultimately determine everything for these Lions, and a hot start for PSU could catapult them right back into the national spotlight. And don't forget, ladies and gentlemen, that once the Big Ten Tournament rolls around in early March, records are again erased and each conference's team that puts together the most impressive run can grab an automatic bid. Just saying. The improbable has happened in the past, and can certainly happen again.
-Talor Battle is Penn State's scoring, rebounding and assist leader and is a bonafide impact player for PSU. The country knows it. He has the experience necessary to lead a team and he has demonstrated that this season with 27+ point efforts in games against UPenn, UNCW, Virginia and Virginia Tech. Two of those supreme efforts by Battle resulted in wins, while the other two ended in disappointing defeats. If Penn State turns it around in the next few months, it will be solely due to the fact that other players on this team increase their productivity.
-Coming into the season, I personally expected either Chris Babb, David Jackson or Andrew Jones to establish himself as the second option for this team, averaging double figures. However, 12 games into the year, there is no clear consistency from anyone on this team. Battle leads the team with 19 ppg, but no other Lion averages in double figures as Jeff Brooks and DJ Jackson both average 8 ppg apiece. Brooks started the season strong registering numerous double figure point totals. Now, he seems to have vanished. D.J. exploded for a career-high 26 points vs. Sacred Heart and has been Penn State's grittiest player, but has proved to be as inconsistent as anyone from a scoring standpoint. Babb and Edwards looked strong in the past two games and seem to be on the upward swing. Penn State as a team shot 55% from the field tonight. Will it continue? We shall see.
-Jones, who was such an instrumental part of several of PSU's postseason victories last year, has not asserted himself on either end of the fall this season as much as the Lions need him to. Jones had nine points and four rebounds tonight, but he needs to bring more to the table in order for Penn State to contend with the hierarchy of Big Ten competition. In the Lions' 66-64 loss to Virginia Tech, Jones stacked up against a team with many gifted athletes fairly well in the first half, but then was nowhere to be found in a tightly-contested ballgame in the second half. That is what needs to change. He has demonstrated a knack for scoring in the post in his career.
-Asst. coach Lewis Preston has seen the highs and lows of Jones over the past two years since he left Florida's staff and came to Penn State. Jones' presence or lack thereof in the the coming weeks and months will be an indication of Penn State's chances this year and Preston has to make it a priority to make sure Jones picks up the intensity. The Big Ten prides itself on physicality, and a lack of an inside game will put PSU at a major disadvantage this year in conference play. The fact that a 5'11" guard, Battle, leads this team in rebounding this deep into the season really exploits the weakness in the front court for PSU.
Lots of questions still to be answered. Lots of games still left to be played. Conference play is on the way and--as I'm sure all of you know--no one can write off anyone at this juncture of the season. That's the beauty of college basketball.