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March 16, 2011TUSCON, Ariz. - The Penn State men's basketball team senior class spent four years trying to get to this point.
Four years of ups and downs, more recently, a series of 'backs against the wall' games dating back to the beginning of February, and now, finally, the Nittany Lions' first NCAA Tournament invitation since 2001.
So forgive them if they're starting to get a little impatient.
This morning, the Lions arrived at the McKale Center on the campus of the University of Arizona, for a light photo-op 40 minute open practice session following a half hour of media availability.
In the locker room, senior forward Drew Jones was asked if he'd be ready to take on No. 7-seeded Temple (25-7) this afternoon.
"Absolutely," he said. "I would have played yesterday.
"It's just that I've never had this opportunity, so it's pretty much just one of those things where you'll do pretty much anything to make sure that you can continue this experience and not let it end here."
Questions that had been asked and answered in Indianapolis, then again back in State College, were asked and answered once again today.
Certainly, the Lions (19-14 overall; 9-9 Big Ten)are enjoying their moment in the sun (literally, blue skies and 80 degree weather) but they made the trip for a reason and thoroughly intend to capitalize on it.
"It's starting to sink in, but we don't have time to just live it. We gotta go out and make things happen," Cammeron Woodyard said. "We talked about it as a group in film. We're not just going to let this time pass by. We've gotta go out and do things and make the most of it.
"Before practice today, we brung it in and just heard a couple of seniors talk. They were telling us they don't want to just make the tournament, and I think everybody feels that way. We're not just out here to be here. We're out here to win some games and I think we're going to work hard toward that goal."
Senior guard Talor Battle expanded on the subject.
"It's definitely been an uphill climb as we've had some tough breaks," he said. "But at the end of the day it's still all basketball. Still got to put the ball in the hoop that's 10 feet high. You are playing between 94 feet. That doesn't change.
"Tomorrow when we come out, this is an exciting moment, but we can't get caught in it. We still got to play the game of basketball and do the things it takes to win the game."
For as much as the Lions have been forced to talk about it, envisioning anything other than a tight start might be a stretch. Although with tipoff set for 11:10 a.m. local time, the Lions might not have time to even think about being nervous.
That said, in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament, the Lions looked like they might put the basketball through the backboard, they were wound so tightly.
Jones acknowledged the reality of playing basketball in a tournament environment.
"In tournament time, you're always excited and anxious, but we're a veteran bunch, and we know that for all of us will do well, we have to keep an even keel. We can't be too high, we can't be too low," he said. "So personally, I've been trying to focus on that a lot. Not get too high, not get too low. Just focus on what I need to do for my team for us to succeed."
Hitting just 9 of 22 shots in the first half against the Hoosiers, then only 13 of 39 shots against the Wisconsin Badgers in the quarterfinals, sophomore guard Tim Frazier actually saw the Lions' initial experience in Indianapolis as a positive.
"We know that we can come out of that if we do start tight, but nobody really wants to," he said. "We want to start out and jump out on them real early and then try to finish strong."
Having relied on defense throughout the success of the Big Ten Tournament, Jones said as a group they are excited to potentially find their footing offensively.
"If you look back, offensively, we've had some pretty good games, but we haven't really put it together the way everyone needs to on all cylinders," he said. "But the thing we have going for us is we rebound the ball and we defend.
"Whenever you have a team that is willing to defend and rebound, even when you're not making shots, you still have an opportunity to win, and that's what I think says a lot about this team."
- Scootie Randall will play. After suffering a right foot injury in the second half of a win over Richmond in mid-February, Randall has been inactive since, missing seven games in the process.
This afternoon, all indications from Randall and his coach, Fran Dunphy were that he would play on Thursday.
"Well, he had not practiced at all before the Atlantic 10 Tournament," Dunphy said. "If you had asked Scootie he was ready February 18th, but the last couple of days, he looked good. He was pain free on Monday and Tuesday. So we're hopeful that he can give us some minutes tomorrow."
The junior small forward has been the Owls' third-leading scorer this season behind guard Ramone Moore (14.9 ppg) and Lavoy Allen (11.8 ppg) with 11.6 points per game.
At this point, Randall said he's simply trying to get back into the flow of the game, something that Battle admitted was a difficult challenge to overcome earlier this week.
"I haven't played in seven games and I haven't practiced in a month, so right now it's all about just getting back into the flow," Randall said. "These guys have been playing great without me, but I think I can contribute and really help my team out if I can play this weekend. It'll be up to coach tomorrow. It's a game-time decision. I'm a competitor; I want to be out there."
- Dave Jones of the Patriot-News is reporting what has been suspected all along: Taran Buie, half-brother to Battle and Penn State true freshman guard, is unlikely to ever play again for the Nittany Lions.
"Nah, probably not at Penn State," said Battle to Jones. "Probably somewhere else. Though he's my brother, I don't know what he's going to do."
"I think he understands now that opportunity can pass you by. It's a life lesson."
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