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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 Q-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 ft. 10 in. 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
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.''
That's another way of saying Penn State is overmatched. Indeed,
the Lions will have to play their hearts out just to stay in the game
against most conference opponents. Penn State does have one Big
Ten-caliber player, senior forward DeRon Hayes, but losing Anderson
and Gaudio left much of the frontcourt burden to John Amaechi, an
Englishman who came to the U.S. in 1989 to enroll at St. John's High
in Toledo at the recommendation of the coach of his club team back in
his hometown of Manchester.
Until a few years ago, Amaechi couldn't name more than two or
three Big Ten teams. ''Michigan I knew,'' he said. ''Bobby Knight and
Indiana I knew. But Iowa, Minnesota, Purdue? Forget it.''
One thing Amaechi knew was that he wanted to play pro basketball,
and staying in England wasn't the way to do it. So he told his mother
he wanted to play high school basketball in the U.S. He has learned
the game well enough to put up 20 points and 11 rebounds against
Ohio State's center, Lawrence Funderburke.
Parsons's departure is part of the reason that 6 ft. 4 in. junior
Michael (Q-Tip) Jennings is playing out of position at the point. The
nickname? Jennings earned it because he looked like a Q-Tip when he
arrived on campus with a slender frame and a haircut that was short
on the sides but went up and up on top. ''I'm too big to be guarding
those little guys who zip all over the place,'' he says. ''I just try
to hang on until help gets here.''
That could be Penn State's motto. ''We're kind of held together by
spit and chewing gum,'' says Parkhill. ''Everything that could have
gone wrong has.'' Including the Big Ten's emergence this year as the
best league in the country; seven conference teams are ranked in
the Top 25.
Penn State, however, is counting on a big payoff in return for
taking its lumps. With national television contracts with ABC and
ESPN, as well as a regional deal with Raycom, the Big Ten generated
far more in TV revenues last season (about $10 million) than the
Atlantic 10 ($1 million). The Big Ten divides that money equally
among its 11 schools, which means Penn State gets richer every time
Michigan or Indiana makes one of its numerous TV appearances. The
Nittany Lions also stand to make more from the NCAA tournament, even
if they have to watch it on television. The Big Ten, which routinely
sends five or six teams to the NCAAs, divides half its tournament
revenue equally among the teams that qualify, and the other half is
shared equally by all the teams in the conference.
The increased TV exposure and the better competition -- as well as
a new, 15,000-seat arena scheduled for completion in 1994, replacing
Rec Hall, which seats 6,846 -- should help Parkhill's recruiting.
Indeed, they may already have. Penn State recently signed point guard
Danny Earl of Medford Lakes, N.J., who's ranked among the Top 100
schoolboy seniors by several scouting services.
But thoughts of finances and the future are cold comfort these
days. Just in case the Lions didn't fully realize they were out of
their depth, their league opponents have been only too happy to
remind them. ''Ohio State had a lot to say,'' says Jennings. ''If you
pulled the ball out instead of going to the basket, they'd say,
'That's O.K., don't be scared just 'cause it's the Big Ten.' We'll
probably hear that a lot.''
Penn State fans understand their team's plight, which is why many
considered last week's 70-68 win over Northwestern at Rec Hall
crucial to the team's avoiding an 0-18 Big Ten record. ''The worst
part is people insulting you when they're trying to be nice,''
Bartram says. ''They'll tell us they think we can win a couple of
league games no matter what anybody says. Gee, thanks a lot.''
It's easy to make light of the Nittany Lions, to cast them as
lovable losers, but Parkhill isn't laughing. He has already rebuilt
two programs: first at William and Mary, which under him in 1977-78
had its best record (16-10) in 25 years, and now at Penn State, where
in '83 he took over a team that had languished in the shadow of
Nittany Lion football. That first season Penn State finished 5-22;
over the last four years, the Lions were ^ 87-40. More important,
amid the steady improvement, all 28 players who have completed their
eligibility during Parkhill's tenure have graduated. Now, he says,
the Lions are ''starting all over again.''
''I really had to sit down and ask myself whether I could go
through the losing one more time,'' says Parkhill, and it was not
just his roots in State College that made him stay. ''It was the
thought of what was possible as a member of the Big Ten.''
Even if it meant hosting one unhappy camper from Indiana every