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March 2, 2011
By Tony Mancuso
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Team chemistry means more to one individual than another. All teams want it; good teams already have it.
It's a connection on the floor that stems from relationships stretching far beyond the 94 feet of hardwood separating the baselines.
And chemistry is something that cannot be coached.
When Talor Battle, Jeff Brooks, David Jackson, Andrew Jones and Steve Kirkpatrick were introduced prior to the Senior Night clash on Tuesday night, it marked the final time hearing their names announced in a regular season game at the Bryce Jordan Center. All five players have left their marks on the Penn State Nittany Lion basketball program. And to say it has been a special group would be an understatement.
This senior class was instrumental in leading Penn State to the program's first National Invitation Tournament championship in 2009. Additionally, the seniors have been at the forefront of a charge towards a postseason berth this season. Individually, the five have played an immeasurable role for head coach Ed DeChellis during the last four years. And, collectively, the group has forged a bond that goes deeper than just basketball.
All five seniors have a compelling story to tell. Beginning with Battle, it is hard to do the Albany, N.Y., native's career justice in just a few paragraphs. He became the first Big Ten player and the 12th in college basketball history to score 2,000 points, pull down 500 rebounds and dish out 500 assists in a career.
And, with six rebounds, the personable senior will ascend to a special place in college basketball history as one of just three players to surpass 2,000 points, 600 rebounds and 500 assists, joining Danny Ferry of Duke and Maryland's Greivis Vasquez in this rarified strata of college greats.
With a strong finish to the season, he also may eclipse Jesse Arnelle's 55-year-old school career points record to become Penn State's all-time top scorer. In all, there is a distinct possibility that Battle will leave Penn State ranked in the Top 15 of 13 major statistical categories. The numbers are staggering, but winning is the only thing that matters to No. 12.
"It has been a really cool four years," Battle said. "We have built great relationships. It is winding down, and we don't want to go out as losers. We want to concentrate on winning some games. We just want to win and play hard."
In addition to being the Big Ten's leading scorer, his coach and teammates view Battle as one of the best leaders in program history. Coach DeChellis said earlier this winter that Battle will be remembered for his numbers, but what he has done off the court and in the practice gym is what separates him from everyone else. And his teammates agree.
"He is not a selfish player," Brooks said. "Guys who think about numbers are selfish players. When you ask him, he is only concerned about winning basketball games. That is when you become a great basketball player, and I think that is what makes Talor so good. He is not worried about records. He is worried about helping us win games."
For Brooks, it has been a memorable experience from day one in Happy Valley. After showing glimpses of brilliance throughout his career, the former Kentucky high school superstar saved his best basketball for last. Statistically, No. 25 has been outstanding during his senior season, scoring nearly double what he averaged as a junior. Additionally, he is leading the team in rebounding.
Brooks said his experience playing basketball at Penn State goes beyond basketball.
"It has been great getting to know those guys," Brooks said. "Building relationships with those guys has just been so much fun for the last four years. It is something that I will never forget."
It's hard to find a more likeable figure than Brooks. He is a fierce competitor on the floor, but off the court Brooks always has a smile on his face and enjoys being a part of the student-athlete experience with his teammates.
"Generally, you just see us as brothers," Brooks said. "We are just that close. We tell each other everything. We talk about everything. We help each other out when we have problems. And that is what brothers do. That's why we are bigger than a team; we are more like a family."
The same can be said for Jackson and Jones. Jackson is averaging better than 10 points per game as a senior, marking his best statistical season. He has been a staple in the lineup for the past three seasons. Jackson was named Most Improved Player following a strong 2009-10 season. Now, he wants to finish his career in style.
"Getting a chance to play with your brothers, day in and day out, has been great," Jackson said. "It is kind of sad knowing we are getting close to the end, but at the end of the day, you have to enjoy it, soak in the moments and play hard."
Jones, who played an integral role in Penn State's charge through the NIT bracket in 2009, has been steady in the starting lineup for three straight seasons. The Penn State basketball program has been Jones' home during his five years in Happy Valley.
"It has meant everything to play with these guys," Jones said. "I have spent the majority of my time on this campus with the guys. I just really appreciate the time I've had with these guys. We will just continue to give everything we have so that we can end our careers on a good note."
That brings us to Kirkpatrick, who is an unsung hero for the Nittany Lions. His career stat line is not indicative of what Kirkpatrick has given Coach DeChellis for the past four seasons. His journey began as a walk-on.
"It has been an awesome opportunity," Kirkpatrick said. "I wouldn't trade it for anything. With the athletics as good as they are, the academics as good as they are and playing with such a good group of guys, it has been the full experience."
He is a relentless worker in the practice gym and a great teammate to have on the bench.
"Starting out as `the walk-on,' and now playing with these guys for four years, you are bound to get better," Kirkpatrick joked. "My game has improved a lot. Off the court, spending 30 hours a week with these guys and school work, it has prepared me for professional work, as well."
It's hard to find a more memorable moment in Kirkpatrick's career than his reverse layup and first career assist on back-to-back possessions during critical minutes in the Nittany Lions' victory over Minnesota (Feb. 17).
"It was cool to contribute," Kirkpatrick said. "I couldn't get a shot to fall (this season). So, it was cool to get a basket through the hoop. It was great to contribute during a time when the team needed it."
All five seniors have cherished the opportunity to play with one another during the past four seasons. When asked what it meant to them, all five lit up before answering.
"We have gone through a lot together," Kirkpatrick said. "We have had highs and lows, but we have developed friendships that will last forever."
With the postseason looming, it is impossible to put a numerical figure on the remaining number of chances the five seniors will have to suit up in Penn State blue and white. The mindset is simple for all five: Win.
But the bond between the Nittany Lion senior class goes far beyond wins and losses.
"We are a team full of brothers, and that makes a family," Brooks said.