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HEISER: Penn State men's basketball program offers fans an actual reason for optimism

Head coach Patrick Chambers has led the Penn State men's basketball team to a 9-2 start this season.
  • The Penn State men's basketball program is off to a 9-2 start this season.
  • The Nittany Lions were ranked No. 23 in the latest AP men's basketball poll.
  • Penn State has been ranked nationally since the 1996 season.

Patrick Chambers and the Penn State men’s basketball team are soaring into some pretty rarified air these days.

It’s the middle of December, and folks in central Pennsylvania — including plenty of York County residents — are actually talking optimistically about the normally-overlooked Nittany Lions basketball team.

What started as a few hopeful whispers during the preseason has now mushroomed into confident declarations in mid-December.

There’s a chance — a real, honest-to-goodness chance — that Penn State will earn an NCAA berth in 2020. That last happened in 2011.

Maryland win: That optimism became evident for everyone to see Dec. 10, when the long-suffering PSU basketball faithful stormed the court after the then-unranked Lions earned a 76-69 victory over then-No. 4 Maryland at the Bryce Jordan Center.

It didn’t matter to those celebrating fans that PSU was actually slightly favored by the Vegas wise guys to win that game. All that mattered was that the Lions beat a top-five basketball foe.

That’s a pretty rare occurrence in State College.

Getting ranked: Less than a week later, something even more unusual happened — PSU was ranked in the AP Top 25.

The last time that happened came in 1996, when the Nittany Lions finished 21-7 overall and enjoyed their best-ever Big Ten season at 12-6.

That was 23 years ago, when Fox News was just making its cable debut, the Macarena was a worldwide hit and none of the current PSU players had yet been born. It seems appropriate, then, that the Lions were ranked at No. 23 on Monday.

The Lions, now 9-2, are likely to stay entrenched in the AP poll through rest of 2019. PSU’s next two foes are dreadful — Central Connecticut State (0-10) on Friday, Dec. 20, and Cornell (1-8) on Sunday, Dec. 29, with both games set for the Jordan Center. PSU should definitely enter the new year at 11-2.

Real work starts in January: Then, the heavy lifting will really start for the Lions.

Starting with a Jan. 4 game against Iowa at the Palestra in Philadelphia, PSU will finish the season with 18 straight Big Ten contests. That stretch will determine the fate of the Lions’ season.

After the win vs. Maryland and an ugly road loss to No. 5 Ohio State, PSU is 1-1 in the Big Ten. If the Lions can go 9-9 over the remaining Big Ten games and finish at 10-10 in the conference, a NCAA berth seems likely. That would leave PSU at 20-11 overall.

Big Ten looks strong: Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. The Big Ten may be the best conference in the nation this season, boasting five ranked teams. That’s more than any other conference. Additionally, since joining the conference in 1992, PSU has finished at .500 or better in the final standings just six times.

The good news, however, is that PSU has just four games left vs. the Big Ten’s other ranked teams — two games vs. No. 15 Michigan State, one game at home vs. Ohio State and one game at No. 14 Michigan (featuring Spring Grove grad Eli Brooks).

That doesn’t mean that the other Big Ten contests are slam-dunk wins. Far from it. Big Ten road games can be especially treacherous, no matter the foe. In fact, Big Ten home teams are 13-0 in conference games thus far.

So, Penn State still has much work to do. An NCAA berth is certainly not guaranteed.

Good nonconference performance: Unlike past years, however, Penn State will be able to point to some impressive nonconference wins, including a road victory at Georgetown, a neutral-court triumph vs. Syracuse and home wins over Wake Forest, Alabama and Yale. And don’t sarcastically chuckle about beating the Ivy League Bulldogs. Yale is 9-3 this season and was an NCAA team last season.

Those victories have helped PSU settle in at No. 18 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool rankings. That is the index that the NCAA Selection Committee now uses when making its bracket decisions, replacing the Rating Percentage Index. Only two Big Ten teams are ahead of PSU in the NET rankings — No. 1 Ohio State and No. 11 Maryland.

Groundwork has been laid: So, there’s no doubt, the groundwork has been laid in Happy Valley. Many PSU fans are even hoping to earn a No. 5 or No. 6 seed come tournament time, and a few real dreamers are even talking about a Big Ten title.

The latter seems like the longest of long shots and the former may be a little too hopeful.

Still, the fact that some folks are even talking about such possibilities marks a major step forward for a program that has been typically overlooked at best and completely dismissed at worst.

Now, the Nittany Lions just need to finish the job when the Big Ten grind starts in January.

— Steve Heiser is sports editor of The York Dispatch. He can be reached at sheiser@yorkdispatch.com.