Despite finishing with a winning record in the Big Ten a year ago, a weak non-con cost the Nittany Lions a shot at the NCAA Tournament. So the slate was beefed up this year, and part of that improvement was supposed to be coming from an appearance in the Charleston (S.C.) Classic.
Following an opening-round game with Colonial Athletic Association opponent UNC Wilmington, an outfit that went 6-25 and 3-15 in its league in 2008-09, PSU figured to meet Miami in the second round and then one of several other quality participants in the third.
But that's not going to happen now. Ice-cold on offense and disinterested on defense, Penn State was stunned 80-69 by the Seahawks, a defeat that was not only embarrassing but also dropped the Lions into the losers' bracket of the tournament.
They get 0-2 Tulane in the second round. Yippee.
It was the sort of defining nosedive that will come back to bite Ed DeChellis' team if it somehow finds itself in the hunt for an NCAA bid again this year. You can almost hear the bracketoligists dissecting the RPI ramifications of the UNCW loss already.
But the way Penn State played Thursday, making the program's first trip to NCAAs since 2001 -- and first ever under DeChellis -- should be the furthest thing from anyone's mind.
Sure, things bounced the Seahawks' way most of the day, as they made 10 of 16 3-pointers and shot a sizzling 57.4 percent from the field. But a lot of that was due to flat-out lousy defense by the Lions. On one play in the second half, UNCW guard Johnny Wolf made an honest-to-goodness set shot with no Penn State defender within 10 feet.
More troubling than the poor defense was the overall poor play of the Nittany Lion post men. Center Andrew Jones is lost without Jamelle Cornley protecting his back in the paint. He has scored 12 points on the season and went 1 of 8 from the floor with four rebounds against the Seahawks.
But chew on this before talking up either of them: Penn State missed 44 shots in the game. The starting three-man frontcourt logged a total of 89 minutes -- nearly half of all of PSU's court time -- and combined for exactly three offensive boards (two by Jackson, one by Jones, none by Brooks).
Jackson, to his credit, took a few balls hard to the rim Thursday. He was 3 of 4 from the line. Brooks was 1 of 1 from the stripe and had a dunk blocked. Jones did not attempt a free throw, and in three games this year against less-than-stellar comp has tried all of two, making neither.
When you look at hustle numbers -- offensive boards, steals, tips, help blocks -- this crew just does not show.
A lot of the message board banter during the game focused on how poorly the PSU guards shot the ball, especially when compared to their UNCW counterparts. Chris Babb was 2 of 12 and rookie Tim Frazier was 1 of 8. Star point man Talor Battle was 8 of 23.
But if you are DeChellis, you live with that, especially from Battle and Frazier. Even though neither was exactly hot, they still made things happen in other ways. Battle kept going hard to the basket, and ended up getting a dozen free-throw attempts (making 11). He also had a team-high eight rebounds.
Frazier was in all-out attack mode, too, getting to the line eight times (and making six), and coming through with three steals and two assists. That kind of spirited play (by Frazier and Battle) helped PSU cut a 13-point deficit to two (64-62) with about three minutes to go before the Seahawks wised up and stopped hacking the Lion guards every time they brought it strong.
As for Babb, once he started bricking everything in sight, I was wondering why DeChellis didn't replace him with Cammeron Woodyard. Then it occurred to me -- OK, I talked to Dave Jones of the Harrisburg Patriot-News at halftime -- that Woodyard must be having defensive issues this season.
DeChellis is no dummy. If a kid can help his team rally, he'll throw him into the fray. He did it with Frazier. So something is up (or down) with Woodyard, and knowing how DeChellis thinks, defensive issues would seem to fit.
Regardless of what happens there, I think the guards will be fine. And they'll get a real boost when rookie Bill Edwards returns from a knee injury, possibly as soon as next week.
In sizing up the roster, it seems only a matter of time until DeChellis turns to a three-guard starting lineup, with Battle and Frazier being joined by Babb, Woodyard or Edwards. It is the only way he can create mismatches, even against a program like UNC Wilmington.
With the three-bigs look -- Brooks, Jackson and Jones -- the offense bogs down and the defense does not really benefit from their length (Jones has two blocks this year, Brooks and Jackson none). As a team, the Lions are averaging one block per game. UNCW had five blocks Thursday alone, including a play where Brooks tried to dunk but had it shoved right back in his face by John Fields.
At 6-foot-5, Cornley was a defensive liability, to be sure. But he made up for it on the other end, with strong post moves, frequent trips to the line and hard work on the offensive glass. The current starting front line averages more than 6-8, but plays significantly shorter than that.
The guards, meanwhile, bring it on offense every trip. Battle and Frazier are fearless. Babb may struggle at times, but he rarely hesitates when it is time to launch.
Which brings us back to the schedule.
And suddenly, all are much more important to Penn State's chances of making the NCAA Tournament.
But, sad to say, after Thursday's pratfall against UNCW, maybe they really are not all that important at all.