The first live drill the Nittany Lions ran was a layup line where each player had to score while being bumped by 6-foot-8 assistant coach Lewis Preston. As they cycled through — for several minutes from the right side before switching over to the left — the athletes kept missing shots.
There were seven misses in all, meaning the entire team had to run seven full-court wind sprints, each in less than 10 seconds. When they finished, with everyone huffing and puffing, sixth-year head coach Ed DeChellis gathered his troops at midcourt.
You start off with no focus, DeChellis barked. We have some media people standing around I don't know what you're thinking. But that's no focus. That's not hard. We're not asking you to do something very difficult. Just make a layup. Captains better get this squad together or it's going to be a looooong afternoon.
DeChellis expects his team to do more than just execute in layup drills during his sixth season at the helm. Though the Nittany Lions have yet to enjoy a winning season during his tenure, their strong finish to the 2007-08 campaign (capturing five of eight to cap the regular season) has everyone in the program talking openly about the team securing an NCAA Tournament bid for the first time since 2001.
If we don't make the NCAA Tournament, that's a failure on my part, said senior forward and team captain Jamelle Cornley. I know what it takes to win. The NCAA Tournament is our biggest goal and hopefully we'll be able to make that run.
Added DeChellis: We can compete every night and I think we can beat anyone we play.
The optimism stems from the late-season run last winter. With preseason All-Big Ten forward Geary Claxton lost for the year with a torn ACL and Cornley hobbling around all season on a bad knee, the freshman-dominated team closed by winning its final five home games, including a pair of upsets of ranked teams (Michigan State and Indiana). The Lions lost at the buzzer to Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament to finish 15-16.
Claxton has since graduated. But Cornley is back and says he is at full strength. Speedy sophomore point guard Talor Battle leads a host of underclassmen, all of whom were forced to grow up quickly in 2007-08.
We have to build on that [finish] to win as many games as we can and put ourselves in position to get to the NCAA Tournament, DeChellis said.
The key to making that run to the NCAA Tournament, in DeChellis' view, will be the up-tempo style that worked so well late last season. Battle is the perfect triggerman for the operation, and will be complemented in the backcourt at different times by super quick Stanley Pringle, long-range bomber Danny Morrissey, and tall and athletic rookies Chris Babb and Cammeron Woodyard.
Led by Cornley, the PSU big men all run well for their size, too. Sophomores Jeff Brooks, D.J. Jackson and Andrew Jones all gained valuable playing time a year ago. They'll be joined by rookie Billy Oliver and, after fall semester finals, 6-10 Villanova transfer Andrew Ott.
We have to be able to push the ball and play fast, DeChellis said.
This is as much quality depth as Penn State has had since DeChellis arrived. In fact, he said only two players are irreplaceable — Battle and Cornley. The prospect of losing either scares me he admitted.
But he is not afraid of the high expectations for the program. To get there, though, he knows he'll have to sweat the details.
Things like making layups in practice.
We're not a finished product by any stretch, DeChellis said. We've got a lot of improving to do.
Joining Cornley as captains are fellow senior Morrissey and the sophomore Battle. They were all elected by their teammates. Penn State did not name captains in any of the past three seasons.
Oliver sustained a concussion last week and is being held out of practice indefinitely.
The Lions open the regular season against William & Mary at the BJC Nov. 14.