Penn State hopes to make NCAA return after NIT win

Few teams can say they ended their previous season on a five-game winning streak. It’s just that Penn State‘s successful run to finish the 2008-9 campaign came in the second-tier postseason tournament.

Still, hopes are high in Happy Valley after Penn State won the NIT title, the school’s first-ever basketball championship in a national tournament. Now the young Nittany Lions have their sights set on taking the next step: making the NCAAs.

“We’ve got a lot of unfinished business,” Penn State coach Ed DeChellis said Monday. “I don’t sit here and say, ‘We’ve arrived.’ That’s foolish.”

At the least, the NIT crown was a nice confidence booster for a success-starved program that seemed to be in a perennial rebuilding mode.

The Nittany Lions set school records last season with 27 wins, including 17 at home. That’s big news on a campus where football is king.

Penn State basked in the notoriety, and coaches are optimistic about recruiting and the buzz on campus.

“We’re never really satisfied. We want to make the NCAA tournament. We want to win the Big Ten championship,” DeChellis said. “Expectations are good … I want our fans to have expectations.”

The last time Penn State made the NCAAs was 2001. Getting there this year is far from a given, even with all-Big Ten point guard Talor Battle back to energize the team.

Just navigating the conference schedule will be tricky. Michigan State and Purdue are potential Final Four contenders. After that, things shake fairly even to DeChellis.

“Then I think … throw us all in a hat. I truly mean that,” he said about the Big Ten race after the Spartans and Boilermakers.

Penn State‘s nonconference schedule may seem more palatable to the NCAA selection committee. The Nittany Lions have a November tournament in Charleston, S.C., that includes schools such as Miami and South Carolina, as well as contests against Virginia, Virginia Tech, Temple and Patriot League champion American.

Preseason prognosticators seem to think Penn State may be a one-season wonder. After tying for fourth in the conference last season, most college basketball annuals have the Nittany Lions finishing ninth in the Big Ten.

With power forward and emotional leader Jamelle Cornley gone, Battle must assume more of the leadership role on a team with no seniors and seven juniors. He’s already got a big plate, having led the team in scoring (16.7 points per game) and assists (5.0), and placing third in rebounding (5.3).

Battle also led the country in minutes played (37.4). He’s grown an inch since last season and bulked up his upper body, perhaps in anticipation of his expanded role this season.

The Nittany Lions lost their second- and third-leading scorers last season in Cornley (14.4) and guard Stanley Pringle (12.8), so the team’s two other returning starters, center Andrew Jones (6.2) and forward David Jackson (4.5), will need to help fill the void as Battle’s running mates.

Battle wonders how much perceptions of the program may have changed despite the NIT success.

“It’s our job to keep working each and every day and prove everyone wrong, and that we really are on the rise,” Battle said.