NCAA hopes for Penn State may rest on final week

Indiana+s+Verdell+Jones+III%2C+right%2C+drives+past+Penn+States+Talor+Battle+during+the+first+half+of+their+NCAA+college+basketball+game+in+State+College%2C+Pa.%2C+Saturday%2C+Feb.+28+2009.+%28AP+Photo%2FCarolyn+Kaster%29%0A

AP

Indiana ‘s Verdell Jones III, right, drives past Penn State’s Talor Battle during the first half of their NCAA college basketball game in State College, Pa., Saturday, Feb. 28 2009. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

By Genaro C. Armas

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – 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.”

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.