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Now that the Penn State basketball team has had a chance to get the feel of its new surroundings, to work up a sweat in its first Big Ten season, the Nittany Lions would like to say a few things to some of their new colleagues. To Indiana coach Bob Knight, who summed up his displeasure at the prospect of making an annual trip to the Lions' isolated campus in State College by saying, "Penn State's a camping trip; there's nothing for 100 miles": Thanks for the potshot, Bob. No school can truly consider itself a Big Ten member until you have somehow disparaged it.
To the two Big Ten coaches who Penn State coach Bruce Parkhill says told him that his team wouldn't win a conference game this season: What, did you guys forget about Northwestern?
Finally, to everyone in the Big Ten who thinks Penn State's contribution to the conference will begin and end with football coach Joe Paterno (there were a lot of you, and you know who you are): Think again. We may not be at our best at the moment, but we do bring a certain charm to the conference. After all, how can you not root for a team with a point guard nicknamed O-Tip, who blithely admits, "Every point guard I've played against this year has lit me up." Or for a team whose center is a 6'10" English import who had the temerity to tell his mother he was giving up plans to attend medical school in order to work on his basketball skills in the U.S.?
Those are some of the things the Nittany Lions would like to say, but won't, because they realize that as the Big Ten's version of an expansion team, they should be seen and not heard. With last Saturday's 61-54 loss to No. 17 Purdue in State College, Penn State had dropped three of its four conference games and was 6-7 overall. Although the Lions have played surprisingly well at home—Ohio State escaped with a 71-68 victory on Jan. 5—they're probably in for more road games like the 105-57 pasting they took at Indiana four days later. It's tempting to say Penn State is out of its league, but unfortunately for the Lions, they aren't.
In jumping from the low-profile Atlantic 10, the Nittany Lions—at least some of them—admit that they are a bit awed by the Big Ten's star power. "You tell yourself, 'These guys are just players,' but you can't help but be a little wide-eyed," says sophomore guard Greg Bartram.
That's exactly what Parkhill, 43, fears. During the early moments of the loss to Indiana, he says, "I was just hoping none of our guys would ask for autographs."
This season's Lions must be content with such modest goals. After winning at least 20 games and qualifying for postseason tournaments in each of the past four seasons, Penn State was considered one of the nation's up-and-coming programs, and last summer Parkhill, who grew up in State College rooting for the Nittany Lions, found himself in the hunt for coaching vacancies at Virginia and Villanova. That was then. Now Parkhill is struggling simply to keep his roster together.
Freshman point guard Wade Parsons, who averaged 35.1 points as a high school senior, gave in to homesickness and returned to Crossville, Tenn., after only three days on campus. Sophomore Matt Gaudio, projected as the starting power forward, is sidelined for the season with a bad back. Finally, sophomore Brian Anderson, a part-time starter at center last year, quit the team after a week of practice to concentrate on his studies.
"If I ever was hot, I'm sure my temperature's gone down this year," says Parkhill, smiling. "I guess you could say we have lousy timing. We could have been very competitive in the Big Ten the last few years, but this year the talent level isn't quite as high for various reasons."