Scrimmages are just scrimmages, and Thursday's game between the teams in Tucson, Ariz., is anything but practice. All the preparation and all the games since that November scrimmage have been designed to get the teams to this point, and here they are.
Dunphy put little stock in the outcome of the scrimmage. "It's a different attitudinal thing. You're just working on your own stuff," he said. But it made more of an impression on Penn State coach Ed DeChellis. Those at the scrimmage say Temple was by far the better team that day, and to DeChellis the difference came down to a toughness and competitiveness that Temple had and Penn State did not.
"What I took away from that was that we needed to get better very, very quickly, because I didn't think we played very well," DeChellis said. "I thought they were a stronger, tougher team both mentally and physically. That's what I do remember."
Penn State toughened during a 7-4 nonconference start to the regular season, got much tougher in compiling a 9-9 record in the Big Ten, then enjoyed the payoff in winning three games in the conference tournament before losing in the championship game to Ohio State. The Lions, with a 16-13 record before the Big Ten tournament, probably needed every one of those tourney wins to make the NCAA field for the first time since 2001.
"It's been rough the last 2 1/2-three weeks winning the games we had to win," DeChellis said, "and putting ourselves in position to beat Northwestern at home and to beat Minnesota at home and on and on. [Then] we got to the tournament, where we had to win at least two games, maybe three."
Somewhere along the way, the toughness he found lacking in that early scrimmage against Temple was developed, and the Owls will find a different team on the floor this time. Talor Battle, the Nittany Lions' star guard, is a given. It is the other players on this senior-laden team that have gotten them this far by hanging together.
DeChellis knows a few things about toughness himself, having grown up in the steel-mill country of Western Pennsylvania, and working some of those mill jobs as a young man. After graduating from Penn State, he worked as a graduate assistant for coaches Dick Harter and Bruce Parkhill before taking an assistant's job at Salem College, a position that also required him to direct the school's intramural program. Back at Penn State for a decade as an assistant, DeChellis then got the head coaching job at East Tennessee State, hired to turn around a moribund program. He did that, eventually taking the last-place school to a conference championship and an NCAA tournament bid.
In 2003, Penn State hired DeChellis as head coach, and the climb has been steady, if not particularly quick, during his eight seasons. There was some bad luck along the way. The 2007-08 team might have been his most talented, but both Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley, the team's top scorers and rebounders, were lost to knee injuries.
The following year, the Lions won the NIT, another step in the climb, and now Penn State has worked its way back to the NCAA tournament. DeChellis gets most of the credit for helping the school shed its football-only image, even if he chooses not to accept it.
"It's not about me," he said. "It's about our players and our university. . . . It has been challenging at times. There have been some things that have happened to us - injuries that weren't expected, and we've had some crazy luck at times. There are always challenges with everything you do in life, and I've always told our kids to just keep fighting and get up off the floor when you get knocked down."
Penn State has done so, and done it often by the slimmest of margins. The Lions are outscoring opponents by just 0.6 points per game and need to keep the opposition below 45 percent shooting to have a chance to win the deliberate, low-scoring gut-churners they often play. When it doesn't work, the Lions don't have much explosiveness to overcome the problems. In the last two seasons, when trailing in games with five minutes to play, Penn State is 0-29.
Temple likes a more offensive game, and the outcome may be decided by which team is able to dictate its style of play. At this stage of the season, maybe it will even come down to which team is tougher. Four months ago, it was clearly the Owls. But as Dunphy said, that was a long time ago, and a lot has changed. Now, we find out how much.
Contact columnist Bob Ford
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