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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Baby steps are better than no steps at all, and last year the Nittany Lions took their first toddling steps forward under coach Ed DeChellis. In his third year at State College, DeChellis led the Lions back to their first postseason trip since they reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament in 2001.
Yes, they only made the NIT last year, and yes, they lost in the first round, but remember -- baby steps.
Now DeChellis is back with a two-year contract extension and four returning starters on the floor, and he hopes the next step is something of a leap, all the way back to the NCAAs.
"We only lost one guy, and everybody else is back, so they know what to expect now," DeChellis said of his players. "This is our most talented team top to bottom, with the most experience and highest level of expectations and work ethic.
"I think [the NIT berth] has given our players an amount of confidence, and there's an excitement in the program and around the university. The students and alumni are excited to see the program going in the right direction and having a little success. The players had a great summer here, and I think the guys are excited about taking that next step."
Penn State will have nearly 80 percent of its points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals back from a team that showed a number of signs of moving in the right direction.
The Lions went 8-3 in non-conference play, their best mark in five years. They won 11 home games, their most since 2000. They swept two Big Ten teams -- Purdue and Northwestern -- the first time they'd accomplished that feat in eight years. They more than doubled their win total, and their six Big Ten wins equaled their total of the three previous years combined. They knocked off No. 6 Illinois, 66-65, on Feb. 4, the highest-ranked team they'd ever beaten on the road, and snapped the longest homecourt winning streak at 33 in the process. And they also posted their first Big Ten Tournament win in five years, a 60-42 throttling of Northwestern, followed by a seven-point loss to Ohio State (after leading for most of the game) that sent them into the postseason with positive momentum.
DeChellis said his staff has been able to drum up some momentum on the recruiting trail as well, meaning a program that has often relied heavily on European recruits is starting to catch the eye of the better American prep players.
"I think in our first year or so we were so far behind in recruiting American players, and that's a process that really starts early in young peoples' careers," he said. "But in Europe it doesn't start that early. In Europe you can get some young players to come in and solidify your roster. Now, we can jump on it like we need to and we're able to stay in the U.S., and that's how we're going to build this program."
Language barriers aside, the continuity in the program should start to show up on the floor, as most of the heavy minutes go to players who have been in DeChellis' system since they were freshmen. "From a strategic side, the guys know now what we're trying to do, so we won't have to change much," DeChellis said. "We'll just work on refining and executing some things, but the system will be the same."