By Genaro C. Armas
The Associated Press
STATE COLLEGE — Penn State guard Talor Battle stood next to coach Ed DeChellis in the middle of a practice huddle at center court, offering direction to teammates as they readied for a brutally tough stretch of the Big Ten season.
Two weeks, five games, all against Top 25 opponents, starting with tonight's visit from No. 11 Purdue (13-1, 2-0).
Indeed, it's sink-or-swim time.
And it's even here a little early this time for the Nittany Lions (8-5, 1-1 Big Ten). But DeChellis' star guard is intent on not letting his senior season end the same way as his first three years — without a trip to the NCAA tournament.
"Is there a more important word than 'critical,'" DeChellis asked rhetorically before Monday's practice. "It all comes down to being successful in the Big Ten Conference. And if we're successful, then we have a chance for postseason play. But we have to win games in the league."
That became even more evident after Penn State lost its three high-profile nonconference games -- to Mississippi, Maryland and Virginia Tech — along with a potentially damaging defeat at home to Maine.
It's been a decade since Happy Valley celebrated an NCAA appearance. And the Nittany Lions' chances to end the drought this season seemed tough enough in the ultra-competitive Big Ten, which currently has four teams in the Top 25.
Now, it's even tougher.
And what a coincidence — those four ranked schools are up next. After Purdue, No. 18 Michigan State visits Saturday, and No. 20 Illinois travels to the Jordan Center on Tuesday.
Penn State then goes to No. 2 Ohio State on Jan. 15, and makes a return trip to Purdue on Jan. 19 ... not that DeChellis is looking too far ahead.
"I'm looking it as a one-game block," he said. "After (Wednesday) is over, then you can focus on Saturday. You can't look at three-, four- or five-game blocks, because they sneak up on you."
Especially when things aren't going your way. The Nittany Lions, after all, have lost nine straight against ranked opponents, the last win coming in March 2009 over Illinois. And they're a dismal 7-37 against ranked foes in DeChellis' eight seasons.
As usual, the quick and gritty Battle is doing his best to keep the team afloat, averaging 21.3 points. He scored 31 on Sunday against Michigan, his sixth career outing of 30 points or more, though the Nittany Lions still fell, 76-69, after leading at the half.
Unlike last year, though, Battle has more help around the basket. Jeff Brooks has stepped up with averages 13.4 points and 7.6 rebounds, while fellow senior forward David Jackson is averaging 11 points.
But it's still not quite enough. Freshman reserve Taran Buie is next at 5.8 points, but he's not even on the floor these days. Buie, Battle's half brother, is suspended indefinitely because of an unspecified violation of team rules. He isn't even practicing after getting in trouble with DeChellis for the second time in six months. He's missed the last two games.
Without Buie, Penn State only goes two deep off the bench, though DeChellis said seldom-used players may see time to boost production. The two main reserves, forward Billy Oliver and guard Cammeron Woodyard, combine to average just 6 points a game.
"It's very concerning now," Battle said. "We're not getting much production, and to win games we've got to get production off the bench. They all know they're capable of playing a lot better."
It's time to show it.