In 2010-2011, Penn State basketball's strong strength of schedule was a key factor that propelled the Nittany Lions into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2001. With opponents like Mississippi, Virginia Tech and Maryland in the non-conference schedule supplementing a rock-solid league slate, the selection committee forgave Penn State's mediocre record and handed out a bid just two years after a weak non-conference held the Lions out of the Big Dance.
Last season's schedule, however, was built for the senior-laden squad of Talor Battle, Jeff Brooks, David Jackson and Andrew Jones. Experienced and tested, those Lions were prepared for the tough battles they faced night in and night out.
In 2011-2012, the story will be quite the opposite. Battle, Brooks and the others have graduated, and Pat Chambers has replaced the experienced Ed DeChellis as head coach. Penn State will sport one of the youngest rosters in the country, with just one senior, Cammeron Woodyard, on the team.
Accordingly, the Lions' non-conference schedule in 2011-2012, announced Tuesday, is decidedly weaker than last year's, despite being highlighted by national powerhouse Kentucky. If the Lions find themselves on the bubble again, there's a good chance this schedule won't do much to help them. However, given the youth and inexperience with which the team will enter the season, if the Lions are on the bubble at all, they'll likely be able to thank a softer non-conference schedule for helping them get their feet wet before the rugged Big Ten schedule begins. Here's a look.
Hartford - November 12. The Pat Chambers era of Penn State basketball will begin with a bang as the hoops team will host Hartford on November 12, ahead of the football team's home matchup with Nebraska. The Hawks were one of the worst offensive teams in the country last season (No. 334 in points per game) en route to an 11-20 record overall and 7-9 record in the America East Conference. They did advance to the America East semifinals, however, where they fell to Chambers' Boston University team. With a final RPI rating of 276, though, it's hard to see this team offering more than a cupcake win for the Lions.
Radford - November 14 (Basketball Hall-of-Fame Tip-Off Tournament). After a one-year break from early-season tournaments, Penn State will re-enter the fray beginning with a game against Radford at the Bryce Jordan Center in the Basketball Hall-of-Fame Tip-Off Tournament. Radford was almost as bad offensively as Hartford last season, finishing ranked No. 335 in the country in points per game. Those struggles are reflected in the team's 5-24 overall record, 2-16 Big South record and No. 333 ranking in the RPI. Really not much more analysis necessary here. This is just an awful team.
Long Island - November 16 (Basketball Hall-of-Fame Tip-Off Tournament). Unlike the Lions' first two opponents, Long Island is more than competent and should challenge the young Lions. The Blackbirds finished in the top five in both scoring (No. 4 at 86.2 points per game) and rebounding (No. 3 at 41.8 rebounds per game) last season on their way to defeating Robert Morris in the NEC Championship game and a first-round loss against North Carolina as a No.15 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They lose seniors Kyle Johnson and David Hicks, but should still be a pretty solid opponent. Hopefully, we'll get our first real feel for what the Lions have in this one.
Kentucky - November 19 (Basketball Hall-of-Fame Tip-Off Tournament, Springfield, Mass.). Not a whole lot that really needs to be said here. The Wildcats are by far the most talented team on Penn State's non-conference schedule and probably the best squad the Lions will face all season. Coming off a Final Four appearance, Kentucky should be loaded again with returning player Doron Lamb, and new recruits Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague. It's hard to see a young Penn State team hanging around in this one, but it will certainly be cool to see the Lions running with one of the sport's biggest names for 40 minutes at the very least.
South Florida/Old Dominion - November 20 (Basketball Hall-of-Fame Tip-Off Tournament, Springfield, Mass.). The team Penn State faces in this game will depend upon what happens on day one of the tournament. South Florida struggled to a 10-23 overall record and a 3-15 Big East record last season and doesn't figure to be much better in 2011-2012. Old Dominion, on the other hand, was solid last season, compiling a 27-7 overall record and 14-4 CAA record on its way to a first-round exit as a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If the chalk holds, Penn State and South Florida will probably lose and face each other in day two of this tournament. If Penn State can somehow pair with Old Dominion on day two, though, that would be a great matchup and possible indicator of where the Lions stand early in the season.
Youngstown State - November 23. This Horizon League cellar-dweller should be another easy win for Chambers and Co. The Penguins went just 9-21 overall and 2-16 in conference last season, good for just a No. 207 ranking in the RPI. Their top returning scorer is Damian Eargle at just 11.3 points per game, so there's no real star power here. Five underclassmen did average seven points or more last season, however, so this one will probably require some strong team defense from the Lions.
at St. Joseph's - November 26. Penn State will get its first non-conference rematch from last season against St. Joseph's in Philadelphia. The Lions defeated the Hawks 66-57 at the Jordan Center in the second game of 2010-2011, one of the worst three-point shooting contests nationally all season. Penn State was just 1-21 from beyond the arc, and St. Joe's was little better, at 4-21. Top scorers Carl Jones and Langston Galloway are set to return to Hawks' coach Phil Martelli and a squad that finished 11-22 overall and 4-12 in the Atlantic-10 last season. St. Joe's will probably be better in this one, and Penn State will probably be worse. It'll be interesting to see if they meet in the middle or if the Lions rule the day again.
at Boston College - November 30. Penn State will be looking for its fourth ACC/Big Ten Challenge win in the last five years when it travels to Chestnut Hill to face the Eagles. BC, like Penn State, will be replacing a lot of scoring, so this should be a good game for the Lions to test their progress in. The Eagles finished with a 21-13 overall record and 9-7 ACC record en route to a first round exit in the NIT against Northwestern, a team Penn State beat twice in 2010-2011.
Mississippi - December 4. Last season, Ole Miss defeated Penn State 84-71 in Oxford thanks to an excellent shooting performance from then-junior Trevor Gaskins. The 6.1-PPG scorer went off for 24 against the Lions on 6-for-11 shooting from three-point territory. He should return, but last season's top scorer, Chris Warren, will not. This should weaken the Rebs (20-14, 7-9 SEC) to a point that the young Lions should be able to mix things up. Between this game and the one against Boston College, we should get a nice handle on what to expect from Chambers' club the rest of the way, as these are two relatively evenly-matched opponents.
Lafayette - December 7. After a pair of what should be tough games, Penn State will get a bit of a breather with Lafayette. The Leopards, though they advanced to the Patriot League final against Bucknell as season, were very mediocre, finishing with a 13-19 overall record and 6-8 league record. The Lions will have to deal with top returning scorers Jim Mower and Ryan Willen, who both averaged double figures last season, but Penn State's power conference talent level should carry it to a relatively safe victory here.
Duquesne - December 10. Local Penn State fans will get a chance to see the Blue and White in action at the Consol Energy Center as the Lions and Dukes meet in the rematch of a hard fought 77-73 Penn State win from last season at the BJC. Penn State needed 31 points from Talor Battle for victory in the first game, and if the Lions expect to sweep the home-and-home series, they'll have to find someone or someones to replace that production. Duquesne was 19-13 overall last season and 10-6 in the Atlantic 10.
Mt. St. Mary's-December 18. It took some late heroics from Talor Battle for the Lions to down the Mountaineers 57-53 at the BJC last season, so you can bet that group will return to Happy Valley with an upset on its mind. The Mountaineers came on strong at the end of last season, finishing with a 9-9 NEC record after winning just two games in the non-conference, and will return three of their top four scorers. If the Lions aren't careful, the Mt. St. Mary's is exactly the kind of low major that could trip them up as Maine did last season.
Cornell - December 21. Most college basketball fans probably remember Cornell as one of the Cinderellas from the 2010 NCAA Tournament, but the Big Red has fallen a ways since then. Last season, the team went just 10-18 overall and 6-8 in the Ivy League, and though its top three scorers are all underclassmen, this is a game Penn State should win this deep into the season. It probably won't be like some of the other cupcakes on the non-conference slate, but if Penn State has any postseason aspirations, this is a game it has to have.
Overall. Again, though the headliners (Kentucky, Boston College, Ole Miss) are pretty good, this is a pretty light schedule for Pat Chambers in his first season. Most of the mid-low majors on the schedule were pretty bad teams last season, and that should help the young Lions fight through the growing pains without suffering many embarrassing losses early on. It's not a schedule that will impress the NCAA Tournament selection committee, but it's one that could help establish some momentum for a program that's going to need it in the early stages of rebuilding.