It’s never too late to build PSU basketball tradition

TIPTON – Why can’t Penn State be Wisconsin in basketball, or Gonzaga for that matter?

The Nittany Lions don’t have much tradition, with only four NCAA Tournament appearances in 22 years and just five since 1965. But the thing about tradition is it’s never too late to start one.

“I completely agree with that,” Nittany Lion coach Patrick Chambers said Monday night during a basketball boosters event at DelGrosso’s Amusement Park.

“I think you can start in 2013 and have a great basketball tradition. I’m a new coach, so there’s new ways, new things, new environment, new culture, we’re recruiting different players.”

Penn State can’t bank on a rich tradition, but then again neither could Wisconsin or Gonzaga in the mid-1990s. In less than 20 years, those two programs went from NCAA afterthoughts to legitimate national players year in and year out.

Wisconsin didn’t make the NCAA Tournament from 1947 until 1994, but the Badgers have gotten there 17 times since ’94, including the past 15 years. Gonzaga never made the tournament until 1995 but also has been there 15 consecutive years.

Those two programs are the exceptions rather than the norm. But if anything they should give places like Penn State hope that just because the past hasn’t been all that great, it doesn’t mean the future can’t be bright.

“You can definitely build tradition,” PSU point guard Tim Frazier said. “Those [teams] started and they made it to the tournament, made great runs in the tournament, and people are always going to remember that. But you’ve got to do it consistently.

“I think we have a great coach to do that, and we’re getting players that can do that.”

The Gonzaga comparison to Penn State isn’t exactly apples to apples because that program has always played in a small conference where it has been able to maintain big-dog status. That’s much, much harder to do in the Big Ten.

But Wisconsin has done it in the Big Ten.

It’s not like the Badgers lure the best recruits in the country, plus, like Penn State, they don’t have a fruitful backyard of high school talent within the state. Badgers coach Bo Ryan has to go into other teams’ recruiting hotbeds and steal players, which is what Chambers and Penn State will have to do.

It’s unrealistic to think PSU can achieve the kind of recruiting success that traditional powers Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State have enjoyed. But again, if a program like Wisconsin can get the job done under not-so-different circumstances, why can’t Penn State?

“Obviously he has his formula,” Chambers said of Ryan’s methodical style of play and ability to recruit players to that system. “We’re recruiting different players.”

So the real answer would seem to be more about coming up with a unique style that’s difficult to duplicate and prepare for but can be sustained over time as long as the strategy remains the same.

“I think we’re doing it,” Chambers said of creating that kind of style. “I think we’re one of the hardest-playing teams in the Big Ten. So if we can continue to play hard and get some talent and get them to play hard, I think you’ve got a special formula there.”

Sounds a lot like what Pitt has done over the years. The Panthers emerged as a national power basically by outworking and outhustling everyone, even when they didn’t always have as much talent on the court as some of their former Big East opponents.

“I totally agree with that,” Chambers said. “Jamie [Dixon] and Ben [Howland], they beat you up, they beat you down.”

The toughness and hustle parts of the comparison to Pitt are true, but as Chambers noted, “They play a little bit slower than I want to play.”

Chambers told the crowd Monday night that his goals are to change the mindset, culture and environment in the PSU program. In a lot of ways he sounded exactly like how Pittsburgh Pirates officials did for the past 20 years.

Chambers said he recently had lunch with Pirates president Frank Coonelly and expressed how he believes the PSU basketball program is on the verge of turning things around, just like the Bucs have done this year.

“I said to Coonelly, ‘I think we can be the next Pirates,'” Chambers said.

How about the next Wisconsin?

“I definitely think that we can get to that level of consistency,” Chambers said. “Wisconsin didn’t get there for a while, now they’re getting there every year.”

Frazier has already been to one NCAA Tournament (in 2011), and if he can lead the program back there his senior year, that will be a good start to the kind of tradition Penn State is hoping to build.

“I want to be able to come back years from now to Penn State,” Frazier said, “and see the tradition getting better and the guys wanting it and telling the guys, ‘I was in your shoes. I was one of the first to start it.'”

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger