Right now, you could split the Penn State men’s basketball team into three categories — known commodities, new faces that could soon be known commodities, and everyone else.
The Nittany Lions open their season against Illinois State in the Black Coaches Association Classic at 6:30 p.m. tonight at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee with a number of unknowns, a prospect at once unnerving and encouraging for a team that has won 23 games in the past three seasons.
MILWAUKEE — Gregg Alexander has been impressed with the play of Illinois State basketball teammates Greg Dilligard, Lorenzo Gordon, Ronnie Carlwell and Neil Plank.
‘The improvement of our post players has been tremendous,’ said Alexander, a senior tri-captain. ‘We know we can throw the ball in there and they will snatch it up.
‘They post hard and work to get the ball. That gives the guards confidence to throw the ball in the post. And they’re good at making the pass out of the post. That gets us moving the ball and opens up our offense.’
Post play very well could be the deciding factor in today’s 5:30 p.m. season opener for both ISU and Penn State in the Black Coaches Association Classic, hosted by Marquette, at the Bradley Center.
‘They are kind of like us up front,’ said Penn State coach Ed DeChellis, who begins his second season at the helm. ‘We are both young with some question marks.’
How bad were things last year for Ed DeChellis and the Penn State Nittany Lions? Very bad. The Nittany Lions finished the 2003-2004 campaign with a 9-19 record overall, 3-13 in the conference. Not all of this can be put at the feet of DeChellis because he was left a program in disarray by Jerry Dunn. DeChellis only has three players on this year’s roster left over the Dunn era at Penn State, but he would give anything for another Crispin brother to miraculously appear in Happy Valley.
DeChellis will have to replace three starters from last year’s team, including seven footer Jan Jagla, who left the Penn State to pursue a career in professional basketball in Germany. The key returnees for DeChellis are both of his starting guards and forward Aaron Johnson. The Nittany Lion attack will surround these three players, but especially guards Marlon Smith and Ben Luber.
Go ahead, ask Ed DeChellis about his team captains for this season. You’ll get a puzzle, not an answer.
“Whew,” the Penn State basketball coach said. “I don’t know.”
Though DeChellis sounded uncertain, he also sounded unconcerned. Leaders? Sure, those will come, so long as the team environment promotes it. Last year, that didn’t happen. But now, DeChellis, in his second year, believes the Lions have drastically improved their team chemistry.
“It is a completely different atmosphere than it was a year ago,” DeChellis said. “The locker room is such a better place to be.”
The person most likely to have the greatest impact on Penn State’s fortunes this season:
Ed DeChellis admits, with a hint of resignation, that Penn State still isn’t the team he’d like it to be. Better than last year?
Certainly. But it still carries a little too much of its traditional image as a Big Ten pushover.
That’s why DeChellis’s job is so important. Within the next two or three years — through recruiting and gradual improvement — he’d like to turn the Lions’ into a more prominent basketball force. But it will take patience — from players, from the administration, even from fans.
Ed DeChellis felt more like a caretaker than a coach during his first season at Penn State.
“Last year, we weren’t really coaching,” DeChellis said. “We were just managing what we had.”
From former coach Jerry Dunn, who was dismissed after a seven-win season in 2002-03, DeChellis inherited a group of inexperienced players and a few malcontents.
There were only two scholarship guards, both true freshmen. The big man was a gangly German who preferred shooting clunkers from beyond the arc to mixing it up under the basket.
By the end of the season, a couple of unhappy veterans had departed, the big man was openly courting scouts from European leagues, and a walk-on with a surgically repaired eye was the team’s most exciting player.
“In the long term, all that (turmoil) probably was a good thing,” DeChellis said. “Because we found out who wants to be here.”
If Marlon Smith and Ben Luber looked a little tired at the end of last year, if their jump shots didn’t have quite the arc, or their drop-step wasn’t quite as quick, they had a good excuse. Smith spent less than 80 seconds of each game on the bench last year; Luber, less than a minute.
A rash of midseason departures and a shortage of available bodies left Penn State unable to run the up-tempo offense favored by coach Ed DeChellis. But a deep recruiting class has gone a long way toward fixing that problem
“We’re way more athletic than we’ve ever been before. I’m more athletic than I’ve ever been before,” forward Aaron Johnson said. “We’re way faster. We’re way stronger. I just think it’s going to be a different team you’re looking at this year.”
Ed DeChellis has been through it. Aaron Johnson is stuck in the middle of it. And both are guiding the Nittany Lions through this transition period, fazing out the Jerry Dunn persona and embarking on the DeChellis era.
Reform is nothing new to the second-year Penn State men’s basketball coach. DeChellis landed his first head-coaching job at East Tennessee State University, where he was greeted with a 7-20 Buccaneer squad. Seven years and three conference divisional winners, a conference tournament champ, and an NCAA tournament team later, DeChellis’ resume garnered considerable attention.
DeChellis was offered two or three positions before patience again paid off for the 1982 Penn State graduate. He held out just long enough for the Lions’ head-coaching job to open up with the resignation of Jerry Dunn in March 2003. DeChellis was welcomed back to the Lions squad, this time as a head coach, after a previously successful 10-year stint as an assistant. DeChellis would be treated to a struggling 7-21 squad. But why start from scratch again?
“I think number one is it’s my alma mater and I love Penn State, and I always felt like we should be as good as anybody else in the country in basketball,” he said. “You want to coach at the highest level and challenge yourself.”
State College, Pa. – November 10, 2004 – The Penn State Nittany Lion basketball team will have the services of one of the top high school players in the state of Ohio as Jamelle Cornley (Columbus, Ohio) has signed a national letter of intent to continue his academic and athletic careers at Penn State next year.
Cornley, a native of Columbus, Ohio, has been a three-year player at powerful Brookhaven High School. At 6-6, 235 pounds, Cornley will bring a physical, muscular frame with him from the basketball-rich Columbus area. A superb talent, Cornley was one of three players tabbed by Associated Press as Co-Ohio High School Players of the Year last season.
“We’re very excited to have a player of Jamelle’s quality join the Penn State basketball family,” Nittany Lion head coach Ed DeChellis said. “He is a warrior on the basketball floor, strong and energetic. Two of the aspects of Jamelle’s game that are so intriguing are his power and enthusiasm. He comes from an outstanding high school program and I believe he is a perfect fit for our system. We’re elated he will be a Nittany Lion next season.”
DeChellis trying to rebuild by staying in state – November 11, 2004
STATE COLLEGE — Mike Walker seemed at ease while answering what seemed like an endless amount of questions during his first media day at Bryce Jordan Center.
He also seemed comfortable not being the center of attention — at least not for now.
Second-year head coach Ed DeChellis knew one of the keys to returning Penn State University men’s basketball to prominence was signing some of the Keystone State’s top talent.
And Walker fits the picture to a tee.