Just a year and a half into his tenure at Penn State, Ed DeChellis' renovation is well underway. Only three players remain from the Jerry Dunn era. With that old framework cleared out, a new foundation is being laid.
But don't expect miracles from a team that dropped 42 games in Dunn's last two seasons and 19 more in DeChellis' first season.
"It didn't get like this in a year," DeChellis said. "And I can't fix it in a year."
The Nittany Lions will have more talent this winter, but much of it is arriving in the form of a five-man recruiting class. The rest of the roster includes three sophomores, one junior, a pair of seldom-used seniors and possibly one athlete returning from a two-year layoff.
"We're gonna be inexperienced," DeChellis said. "But I think we'll be better."
FRONTCOURTThe only tested returnee here is Aaron "Hojo" Johnson, who overcomes limited athletic ability with a savage style that gives opposing big men fits. Johnson rebounds with authority, uses his backside to create scoring space and can pop from the arc. He must improve defensively to become a complete package.
The challenge is finding someone to complement Johnson. Junior college transfer Travis Parker is what the staff calls a "step-out" four, meaning a power forward with a solid handle and 3-point range. Parker is also an adept passer who can run the floor. Those skills will keep opposing posts from doubling down on Johnson.
Pairing the 6-foot-9 Johnson with the 6-5 Parker may cause defensive issues against taller teams, but this appears to be a pick-your-poison proposition.
The alternatives include a pair of seniors, Kevin Fellows and Jason McDougald, but both have struggled to this point. The surprise here could be rookie Brandon Hassell, who has solid all-around skills for his size. The staff would love to redshirt the 220-pounder to allow him to fill out, but they likely will not have that luxury.
BACKCOURTGuards Ben Luber and Marlon Smith ranked first and third, respectively, in the Big Ten in minutes per game as true freshmen last season. They took their lumps but never rested because there were no other scholarship guards in the program.
The staff addressed that issue with its latest recruiting class, landing a point, a shooting guard and a small forward. With an actual backcourt rotation, DeChellis can move away from the plodding style he was forced to use last winter and begin implementing the up-tempo attack that served him so well in seven seasons at East Tennessee State. This new depth should allow Luber, Smith and company to deliver a few lumps of their own.
"We have more options, we can run a little more and not walk up as much," DeChellis said. "And maybe actually try to press a little bit."
"The people who are here are all going to buy into the system more," Luber adds. "It's a lot better situation this year and we'll definitely be able to run his style of play."
Smith is Penn State's best pure scorer since Joe Crispin. He's outstanding from distance, can pull up or drive, and is a rocket in transition.
Luber set a PSU record for assists by a freshman (114), deftly handling full-court presses until his legs gave out late in the season. His shot must improve if he's going to remain a starter.
The freshmen -- lefty point Mike Walker, shooting guard Danny Morrissey and wing Geary Claxton -- give the staff a load of mix-and-match options. Especially Claxton, who uses a seven-foot wingspan to rebound and block shots.
Veteran wing Jamaal Tate, trying to work his way back into the program after a two-year absence due to alcohol abuse, will add even more versatility if he gets his act together.
In fact, if DeChellis doesn't like what he sees from his post players in a given game, don't be surprised if he cuts loose with a four-guard attack.
FINAL ANALYSISDespite the defections of four players during and after last season, DeChellis will be disappointed if his remaining troops and new faces don't improve on that 9-19 mark in year No. 2 of the rebuilding process.
"We expect to be better," he said. "The experience [of 2003-04] will help us. The backcourt depth will help us. But for the next couple of years, we're going to be young. That's just how it is. We can't make guys older than they are."