Nittany Lions Happy to Land in NIT

There have been years when underachieving Penn State teams have been mocked for reveling over NIT bids. But nobody is thinking any less of the Nittany Lions for being thrilled with an invite to the "Little Dance" this March.

Riding a string of four straight losing seasons and a consensus pick to finish last in the conference for a fifth consecutive time, third-year coach Ed DeChellis' team was a mild surprise, going 6-10 in league play — a five-win improvement over 2004-05 — and 15-14 overall.

With only one senior and two juniors in the program, Penn State is viewing the NIT bid it received Sunday night as another significant step in its ongoing rebuilding project. The Lions face Rutgers (18-13) at the Jordan Center Tuesday at 8 p.m. The action will be televised on ESPNU.

“We are thrilled, we are excited, we are happy,” DeChellis said. “When our name popped up on the board … I'm just really happy for our kids.”

The winner of Tuesday's game plays St. Joe's in Philadelphia Thursday.

Rutgers is led by Big East scoring champ Quincy Douby (25.1 ppg), but no other Scarlet Knight player averaged double figures during the regular season. In the last meeting between the two teams, Penn State upset RU in Piscataway, N.J., Dec. 1, 2004.

“He's a great scorer,” DeChellis said of Douby. “He can shoot over people.”

Rutgers coach Gary Waters has already announced that he will resign effective at the end of the season. The Knights are 12-5 at home this year and 4-6 on the road.

The previous unwritten standard for major conference teams to make the NIT was finishing the regular season and league tournament with at least a .500 record. But that was no lock this year. The NCAA bought out the NIT in a $56.5 million deal last August, and recently adjusted the qualification criteria to include all regular-season conference champions who do not qualify for the NCAA tournament.

That was of obvious benefit to the so-called minor conferences, but appeared to work against the big boys. So when Penn State assured itself of the .500 or better mark with a home win over Northwestern Feb. 25, DeChellis was anything but positive the Lions were NIT bound. The Lions practiced Sunday not knowing if their season would continue.

“We didn't know how it would work out,” he said. “I'm just really happy it worked out for us.”

As it turned out, Penn State made it in with room to spare. The Lions are the seventh seed (of 10) in their bracket, and as such are playing host to No. 8 seed RU in a first-round game. St. Joe's, the No. 2 seed, gets a bye. Big Ten brother Michigan is the No. 1 seed in a seperate bracket.

Minnesota, which went 15-14 but finished behind PSU in the Big Ten standings, earned a No. 4 seed in a third bracket, despite finishng behind PSU in the Big Ten standings. In all, there are 40 teams in the field.

“You look at some of the teams in the tournament, and it's very impressive,” DeChellis said. “You have a Big East and Big Ten team going head to head right from Day One.”

Since joining the Big Ten in 1992, Penn State has advance to the NIT three times, going 11-3 in those games and advancing to the tournament semifinals at Madison Square Garden in New York on all three occasions. The Lions came away with third-place finishes in 1995 and 2000, and a second-place showing in 1998. The team that beat PSU in '98, Minnesota, later vacated the title due to NCAA violations.

Penn State had previously been to the NIT in 1960 (0-1), 1980 (0-1), 1989 (1-1), 1990 (4-1, third-place) and 1992 (0-1). The Lions' all-time record in the NIT is 16-8.

• See Rutgers' Stats Here.

• See The Bracket Here.


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