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PSU's biggest game in a decade: Lions have golden opportunity vs. Buckeyes
February 28, 2011 - Cory Giger
Tonight, Penn State plays its biggest basketball game in a decade -- since the 2001 NCAA Tournament -- and it's also the biggest game of Talor Battle's life and Ed DeChellis' career.
A win over No. 1 Ohio State won't get the Nittany Lions into the NCAA Tournament by itself, but a loss effectively bursts their bubble. Beating the Buckeyes and winning at Minnesota on Sunday, for a 10-8 Big Ten record, should be enough to go dancing.
Tonight, therefore, essentially is Penn State's NCAA Tournament.
A bubble team can't ask for anything more than an opportunity to play its way into the field at home against the nation's No. 1 team. That kind of win in the final week of the regular season would make an attention-grabbing "this team is for real" statement to the selection committee.
Currently, Penn State is not a tournament team. And it's apparently not even close to being one.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi doesn't have PSU in his "first four teams out" list, nor in his "next four out." That means at least eight teams have a better shot than the Lions.
None of those other teams, however, have a victory over the No. 1 squad in the country. So in that regard, tonight isn't just one game, nor would it be just one victory.
It would be a season-defining victory that would be coming at the perfect time, plus it would give Penn State a bold-faced asterisk to make up for the many warts on its resume.
The Lions already have three strikes against them:
1. Only two road wins (Indiana, Northwestern), with potential for a third at Minnesota. The Gophers have collapsed, though, losing seven of eight, so that victory won't carry much weight. The selection committee places great emphasis on being able to win away from home.
2. They didn't beat anybody of note in the non-conference, and no, Duquesne (No. 99 RPI) doesn't count. Losses to Maryland, Virginia Tech and Ole Miss hurt.
3. Maine. Inexplicable and inexcusable. The Black Bears are 14-14, have lost seven of eight and have an RPI of 205. That remains a killer loss.
DeChellis shoulders the blame for all of the above and badly needs a win tonight to get critics off his back. For his part, he's playing the one-game-at-a-time card.
"We're trying to build our resume, just like a lot of other teams are trying to build their resumes," DeChellis said Monday. "We have to put our best foot forward and try to continue to win games, and the next one just happens to be Ohio State."
No, the next one happens to be the game that will decide if DeChellis' disappointing tenure will at the very least include one trip to the NCAA Tournament.
With Battle and three other senior starters departing, DeChellis faces a rebuilding challenge that he's frankly not capable of pulling off. If the guy can't get to the tourney with the best player in program history, he needs to go so that someone else can try to turn things around.
As for Battle, he would trade all of his accolades and milestones for an opportunity to play in the NCAAs.
"To go dancing, they can have every last single one of those [2,000] points," Battle said. "That's been my goal for four years. Sophomore year we were so close, and now, there's the opportunity."
Battle will forever be remembered as the ultimate gamer and all-around player. But his legacy will -- for better or worse -- be tainted in some people's mind if he doesn't get to the NCAA Tournament.
"I still did a lot for this program, regardless of the fact if we get to the tournament or not," Battle said. "I can look myself in the mirror and say each and every day I played hard and tried my best to get there."
Battle then went on to say, "If it doesn't [happen], I won't beat myself up over it."
Nor should he, since he's done everything in his power to make the PSU program entertaining and competitive.
Expect the Lions to be competitive tonight and give the Buckeyes a good battle deep into the second half, just as they did when they lost in Columbus, 69-66.
Ohio State is still the much better all-around team, however, and will pull away in the closing minutes.
Prediction: Buckeyes 70, Penn State 62. And no NCAA Tournament.
Cory Giger is the host of "Sports Central" from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. He can be reached at 949-7031 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tonight: No. 1 Ohio State (27-2, 14-2 Big Ten) at Penn State (15-12, 8-8), 9 p.m.
TV: Big Ten Network
At stake: It's not a win-and-in scenario, but PSU (56 RPI) can strengthen its NCAA Tournament hopes by knocking off the Buckeyes (RPI 3). A loss, and the Lions are likely finished.