The Lions entered the tournament at 2-0, but were the only outfit in the eight-team field not to win at least one game. Ed DeChellis' crew fell to South Carolina (74-67) on Thanksgiving Day, Rider (82-73) Friday and UCF (70-59) Sunday.
And that was not exactly against stellar competition. The Gamecocks were 14-16 a year ago and just 4-12 in the SEC. The Broncos were 16-15 and 9-9 in the MAAC. The Golden Knights were 22-9 and 11-5 in Conference USA, but lost two of their top three scorers.
But here is the REALLY bad news: all told, the three teams that beat PSU did not win another game in the tournament. It was a good thing the Lions were not playing in a powerhouse preseason tournament, like the one held in Maui.
Things don't figure to get much easier for DeChellis and his squad. They play host to Virginia Tech in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Wednesday, then travel to Philadelphia to tangle with St. Joe's at the Palestra Saturday, then returned to the BJC to take on Seton Hall Dec. 8.
But before looking ahead, let's take a few minutes to look back at what went wrong for Penn State during its holiday visit to Disney.
As expected, senior forward Geary Claxton is posting great numbers, easily leading the Lions in scoring (21.2 ppg), rebounding (9.2 rpg) and blocks (six). But, as was the case last season, he continues to struggle in clutch situations. When Penn State is aching for a big bucket — whether to stop a scoring run by the opponent or when the Lions need a score at the end of the game — he tends to disappear.
In the loss to Rider, Claxton went about 18 minutes (from the 9:19 mark of the first half to the 11:19 mark of the second half) without scoring. He missed six shots and had four turnovers in that span.
He also misses free throws at important moments. Through five games, Claxton has made only 54.8 percent of his free throws.
Against UCF, Claxton was 1 of 4 from the line before facing a key one and one with just under seven minutes to go and the Lions down 52-46. He missed the front end. He finished 2 of 7 on foul shots in the game.
When fellow forward Jamelle Cornley's minutes are limited by injury — as they were in Orlando — all of Claxton's issues are magnified. Cornley brings the intangible and leadership qualities that don't come naturally to Claxton.
In fairness to Claxton, Cornley is even less reliable on foul shots, though. More on this later.
Make no mistake about it; without Claxton, Penn State would be even worse than it is. But sooner or later, the team's star has to play like a star when it matters most.
Penn State has two styles of guards on the roster. Veterans Danny Morrissey and Mike Walker are strong shooters whose lack of athleticism hurts them defensively and in the transition game. Newcomers Talor Battle and Stanley Pringle are rockets who — to date, at least — have shot poorly.
Through five games, there has been no middle ground with any of them. Morrissey and Walker have continued to have their issues defensively. And Battle and Pringle are shooting a combined 7 of 41 (17.1 percent) from the arc and 24 of 87 (27.6) percent from the field.
So opponents will continue to attack Morrissey and Walker. And they will continue play off Battle and Pringle, dropping back into the lane to prevent them from penetrating.
There are two ways to improve in this area. One, obviously, is for Battle and/or Pringle to start making their shots. Neither player seems to be lacking confidence, and five games is not a long enough period for anyone to make a definitive judgment on the duo's ability to shoot from long range.
The other would be a bit trickier, but may be necessary if the guards continue to struggle — namely, get Claxton more minutes at the two spot. Granted, DeChellis does not have another capable natural small forward to replace Claxton there. But that could change if versatile true freshman Jeff Brooks — a five-game starter at power forward — begins to feel more comfortable with his game and slides over.
In the loss to Rider, Penn State took a 34-21 lead with 6:40 remaining in the first half. The Lions did it on the strength of a 12-3 run that was fueled by Walker (a 3-pointer and assist) and Cornley (seven points and a steal). In fact, PSU made it 34-21 when Cornley scored inside off a Walker assist.
At the next dead ball, DeChellis replaced Walker and Cornley with Morrissey and D.J. Jackson, respectively. No problem there, as keeping players fresh — especially Cornley, who was returning from injury — made sense.
What didn't make much sense was that the hot hands of Cornley and Walker remained parked on the bench, even as the Lions completely unraveled.
Over the course of the next 5:29, Penn State went ice cold and Rider caught fire. By the time Cornley returned to the floor at the 1:11 mark, State trailed 37-36.
Walker finished the half with 11 points, including a 3-of-5 showing from the arc, but never returned in the opening 20 minutes, even after Morrissey missed a pair of triples. Walker did not make it back on the floor until the 14:38 mark of the second half, by which time the Lions trailed 50-42. He never got back into the swing of things, and finished 4 of 8 from the floor in the game.
None of which is to suggest getting Walker more minutes in every game will necessarily be better for the team. As we mentioned earlier, he has his limits. But he is a streaky player who is a handful for any defense once he heats up.
DeChellis is now in his fifth season at Penn State, and for the first time has some depth with which to work. But that doesn't do much good if he can't recognize those players who are in a groove.
LONG RANGE SHOOTING
Penn State is 39 of 141 (27.7 percent) on 3-pointers this season. Opponents are 35 of 103 (34.0 percent). Not much analysis needed here. If you can't make at least a third of your triples, you should not be taking as many as PSU is launching.
It is scary to think what will happen when the Lions hit the Big Ten, where opposing defenses are generally bigger and do a better job defending the arc.
FREE THROW SHOOTING
Penn State is 55 of 87 (63.2 percent) from the stripe this season. Opponents are 77 of 106 (72.6 percent).
So not only are the opponents doing a better job of getting to the line, they are also converting at a much higher rate than the Nittany Lions. And again, this is against what is — relatively speaking — weak competition.
Even more troubling is how bad Claxton and Cornley are in this department. Through five games, Penn State's primary post scorers have combined to go 21 of 39 (53.8 percent) on foul shots.
Count on the duo's free-throw issues to cost Penn State at least a few games (if not more) the rest of the way. Generally speaking, basketball players do not dramatically improve their free-throw shooting this late in their careers, let alone in the middle of a season.
Center Brandon Hassell continues to see serious minutes despite being a serious liability on both ends of the floor. The 6-foot-11 center has a more-than-respectable 33 rebounds through five games, but has made only 5 of 17 shots (.294). His inability to simply catch the ball disrupts offensive rhythm for the entire team.
When Hassell is on the floor, his defender can leave him to prevent other Lions from driving to the hoop, which basically gives the opponent a five-on-four advantage when State has the ball.
Hassell's inability to block shots continues to be a major issue, as well. Through five games he has three swats. He has logged over a thousand minutes in his career and has a grand total of 15 blocks, a figure that is almost beyond belief.
Opponents consistently attack him. Big men push him out of the way to gain low-block position and beat him with simple drop steps. Wing players slash to the hole and go over him.
Yet Hassell has started every half of every game this season.
Redshirt freshman Andrew Jones is a much more polished product offensively and has the potential to be outstanding on defense. He has tended to get into quick foul trouble this season. But even when he can't play, the Lions would be wise to go with a smaller lineup (using Cornley or Jackson at the five) rather than relying on Hassell.
In October, DeChelllis and his players talked openly about this being a season where the program should be poised to make a run at the NCAA Tournament. But the 0-3 showing in Orlando is going to make simply finishing with a winning record a challenge.
The Big Ten regular season is now back to 18 games. If you consider that Penn State has not won as many as seven games in the league since 2001 and has enjoyed one winning record (12-6 in 1996) in the conference since joining in 1992-93, it is difficult to envision it doing anything better than 9-9 in the Big Ten this year.
A more realistic best-case scenario, given the poor performance in Orlando, would be 8-10. And note we mentioned best-case scenario there.
Even if the Lions somehow manage to go 8-10 in the conference regular season, that would mean they must win five of their seven remaining non-conference games PLUS a conference tournament game just to finish 16-15.
Would you wager on that happening? Didn't think so.
Yes, the Thanksgiving trip to Disney may have been forgettable for DeChellis and his crew. But we get the sense they'll be remembering it for months to come.