Jan. 8, 2009

By Anthony Oliva III

Traditionally, Penn State is known for one sport - football.

The Bryce Jordan Center, home of Penn State basketball, sits in the shadows of the massive football stadium that regularly seats over 110,000 fans a game. For perspective, the 17 PSU home basketball games in 2007-08 attracted a total of 136,693 fans.

For many, the Nittany Lion sports calendar starts in late-August, early-September and, on a good year, extends just into the New Year. After that, the biggest sporting event of the year is traditionally - you guessed it - the spring football scrimmage.

But, with a few more wins like the one the Nittany Lions pulled off on Tuesday against No. 14 Purdue, that might soon begin to change.

"Our goal is to come out and try to get people in stands and make this a two-sport school," sophomore point guard Talor Battle said. "Each and every day we work hard to do that. We want to fill the seats just like the football team does and winning is obviously what's going to key that."

And a win against a top-15 team not only excites the fans - it helps the team push itself to new heights as well.

"It was a great win for us," Battle said of defeating Purdue. "It's one of those wins that really helps us increase our confidence and show that we can play with the better teams in this league and around the country."

Now, the Lions (13-3), who also notched a big win early in the season against Georgia Tech, are off to their best start since the 1995-96. At 2-1 in the Big Ten, their only conference loss came as a four-point heartbreaker on the road to a Wisconsin team that is hovering around the top 25.

To really make a run, the Lions will have to stay strong in the conference. Perennially, the main downfall for Penn State has been conference play. Just two seasons ago the Nittany Lions lost 14 of their last 15 Big Ten contests, including a streak of 12 in a row.

Last year, after a promising 10-4 start, which included wins in its first two conference games, the Nittany Lions, hampered by injuries, went through a stretch where they lost 10 of 12 in the Big Ten.

During those 2006-07 and 2007-08 seasons, the football team went 18-8 and won two bowl games. So, it's not surprising that they remained the main attraction on campus.

There is reason to believe, however, that things will be different for this Penn State team

This year's Nittany Lions have more experience across the board, and Coach Ed DeChellis pointed out his team's maturity and leadership as two reasons why he thinks this year's conference slate will be more successful.

Even more than that, on the court, Penn State is getting substantial production from Battle, leading the team with 18.9 points per game, Stanley Pringle, the senior guard who is adding just over 15 points a game and Jamelle Cornley, the senior forward averaging 14.2 points and seven rebounds a night.

"We kind of have a three-headed machine going right now and we're just looking forward for another to guy to step up," DeChellis said.

And the 13 wins so far this year are a step in the right direction, but Penn State knows it has more work to do if it wants to arouse a fan following like the football team has.

"Last year we were off to a great start and we were excited and people were excited and boom, it kind of hits you in the face," DeChellis said. "We are confident, but we are guarded as a staff and I think our kids somewhat understand that as well"  

With the pieces in place, the team now has to do one thing to gain notoriety: Win.

"I think it's a situation where we are trying to change culture and trying to change atmosphere, and I think the way you do that is to try and win basketball games." DeChellis said.

Nothing can excite a fan base like meaningful games in March and making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000-01 is the overriding goal for the Nittany Lions this year.

"Throughout the whole year that's all we talk about - getting into the NCAA tournament," Battle said.

"There are some guys here that haven't won a lot of games at all and lost plenty more than they have won, so this is a great taste for them right now, but we're not satisfied with anything with our start," he continued

This following week will be a big test for the Nittany Lions in their NCAA Tournament bid as they face two ranked opponents. First they travel to Minnesota to face the Golden Gophers on Sunday and then they face Michigan State at home on Jan. 14.

With students back on campus for spring semester and the team having a few wins under its belt, the Nittany Lions are expecting a big crowd when they play the Spartans. A win against Minnesota would only help that cause.

"I think we're going to have great crowds here the rest of the Big Ten season and we have to do our part and continue to play fun, exciting basketball and win games at the same time," DeChellis said.

Winning can change everything, and this Penn State team seems poised to have its first winning season since 2000-01.

"We take a lot of pride in being successful and trying to take the basketball program to where it needs to be," Battle said.

With the football season now over and a basketball team that is winning, the program could develop into a big-time winter sport for Penn State fans.

Even if it is just a reason to cheer in between the bowl game and spring scrimmage.