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Nittany Lions knocking on NCAA tourney door

Thursday’s game vs. Illinois starts a rare meaningful March for PSU.

STATE COLLEGE — Big basketball games in early March? NCAA tournament talk?

It’s all relatively new for success-starved Penn State.

The spring football practice chatter will have to wait in Happy Valley: the Nittany Lions (20-9, 9-7 Big Ten) are making noise on the hardwood with their best season in years. Penn State hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 2000-01, the last time the program reached 20 wins.

Hopes of returning to the tournament hinge in large part on what happens over the regular season’s final week, and it all starts Thursday night when No. 23 Illinois visits the Jordan Center.

Then, the Nittany Lions must travel to Iowa for the regular-season finale on Saturday, a game scheduled to start less than 48 hours after the Illinois game.

“It’s uncharted waters for our team,” said Ed DeChellis, the sixth-year head coach. “We haven’t been in this situation before where we’re trying to make the stretch drive to the NCAA tournament where every game is crucial.”

A team spokesman went back to a 1991 victory over George Washington as the last contest played in State College to have as much meaning as this week’s Illinois game — and that was for the Atlantic 10 tournament championship. Penn State moved to the Big Ten two seasons later.

A win Thursday night would give the Nittany Lions four victories over Top 25 teams this season. Experts predict the Big Ten will get at least five and up to seven teams in the tournament, placing Penn State squarely on the bubble, along with Minnesota and Michigan.

“I don’t think you can stop building on your resume,” DeChellis said. “We’re in charge of our own destiny. The carrot is right in front of us.”

It might help if Thursday night’s game wasn’t a repeat of the ugly 38-33 victory over the Illini two weeks ago, when Penn State shot just 28 percent but held Illinois to 30 percent from the field.

Overall, Penn State hasn’t had a consistent offensive rhythm for most of the last month. Guards Talor Battle and Stanley Pringle have tailed off from the outside after having hot hands earlier this year.

Some of the drop-off might be due to better scouting by teams that have a good handle on what opponents want to do.

The long Big Ten grind may also be wearing on players.

“Now it’s March. Guys are a little bit tired, guys are little bit sluggish,” DeChellis said. “It’s human nature.”

Power forward Jamelle Cornley’s production has declined somewhat over the past couple weeks as opponents pay more attention to him inside, though center Andrew Jones has become more of a factor by shooting 77 percent (21-of-27) over the last eight games.

Foul shooting continues to be an adventure — Penn State was a paltry 7-of-17 (41 percent) from the free-throw line in a 61-58 victory Saturday over woeful Indiana, staving off what could have been a demoralizing upset.

Penn State is shooting a Big Ten-worst 65 percent from the foul line this season.

“This one by far is the hardest and probably the most competitive year that we’ve had, because there are so many teams bunched in the middle,” said Cornley, Penn State’s emotional leader. “You can’t afford to take a game or two off, or your position in the standings can suffer.”

Yet the Nittany Lions take heart in that they’ve won three of their last four in spite of their offensive struggles. They’ve shaken off a three-game losing streak in early February that followed an upset victory at Michigan State.

Penn State held Indiana without a field goal for the final 5:26 of last week’s game to scramble ahead for good. The defense also came through in the low-scoring win at Illinois.

It’s big progress for fifth-year senior Danny Morrissey, a freshman on the 2004-05 Penn State team that finished 7-23, and 1-15 in the Big Ten. While he tries to stay away from online chatter about the Nittany Lions’ NCAA chances, he does sneak a peak in now and then.

“It’s fun, you want to enjoy the entire process,” Morrissey said. “It’s new, it’s exciting.”

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