Big Ten Tournament, First Round: Cornley dominates as Penn State thumps Indiana, avoids letdown
Just 30 minutes after Michigan crushed Iowa in Conseco Fieldhouse, Penn State decided that having a low-drama afternoon on First-Round Thursday was a very good idea at the Big Ten Tournament.
Perhaps inspired by the seventh-seeded Wolverines, the sixth-seeded Nittany Lions did not allow Indiana to breathe in the final opening-round game of this year's four-day festival of hoops. Much like Michigan, the boys from Happy Valley throttled an inferior opponent behind the play of their big man. What DeShawn Sims did to Iowa in the 7-10 game, Jamelle Cornley did to the Hoosiers in this 6-11 matchup. Cornley scored 22 points on 9-of-12 shooting to lead Penn State to an easy 66-51 romp in Indianapolis. PSU led by a 63-38 score at the six-minute mark of the second half before coach Ed DeChellis smartly pulled his starters for Friday's quarterfinal against third-seeded Purdue. That's the only reason the game's final margin plummeted to a still-comfortable 15 points.
Cornley's A-game performance was particularly conspicuous in light of the fact that the Penn State post player started this contest the same way Sims began against Iowa. Whereas Sims hit each of his first eight field goal attempts against the Hawkeyes, Cornley nailed all of his first six shots against Tom Crean's kids. Showing an impressive mix of power and agility, Cornley defied the efforts of Indiana's team defense, proving to be the one man on the floor the Hoosiers could not stop. The superb Sims-like showcase gave PSU an early 26-8 bulge, and even though Indiana--true to its character--never stopped trying, the Lions didn't have to sweat throughout an uneventful second half.
As a result of Cornley's dominant display--which was supplemented by guard Stanley Pringle's 16-point outing for the disciples of DeChellis--Penn State moved that much closer to an NCAA Tournament bid.
What's simple about the Nittany Lions' outlook is this: If they beat Purdue on Friday, they're a mortal lock for the tournament in the eyes of every hoops pundit in the country. The verdict in some precincts--including this one--is that today's decisive win should be more than enough to put Penn State in the field of 65. Last week's monster win over Illinois actually should have sealed the deal, even with a loss at Iowa on March 7, but the presence of lowly Indiana as PSU's first-round opponent meant that the Lions simply couldn't lose to a six-win team. This wasn't necessarily a tall order for Penn State--even in Indianapolis, a city at the heart of Hoosierland--but if Jamelle Cornley and Co. had blown this backyard battle, they would have given the selection committee a glaring reason to exclude them on the afternoon of March 15, otherwise known as Selection Sunday.
Now that this win is in Penn State's pocket, the Lions should feel somewhat comfortable about their chances. But as any team should know during this time of year, probabilities can't be relied on. It's always far more preferable to remove all doubt from the hands of outside decision makers, instead of tempting fate to any small extent.
There's a battle against some Boilermakers that Penn State intends to win on Friday. In the long run, the outcome of that quarterfinal shouldn't strip the Nittany Nation of a coveted Dance card, but Ed DeChellis will tell his team in an Indianapolis hotel (and later, in a pregame locker-room setting) that likelihoods don't mean very much. That's the bottom line as Penn State's feel-good story continues--a ticket to the tournament should be handed out in Happy Valley, but that ticket can be safely secured with just one more victory.