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Nittany Lions jumping through high hoops

Commentary

(This column was published Saturday and updated with the latest AP ranking today.)

There’s never been a Penn State basketball season quite like the one that’s developing before our eyes.

Yes, the Nittany Lions have had great players (Jesse Arnelle, Joe Crispin, Talor Battle), and yes, they’ve had great moments (beating North Carolina and UCLA in the NCAA Tournament to go with a pair of NIT titles).

But the only team that comes close to this one is the 1995-96 entry.

Rewinding the tape: The Lions moved into the freshly-minted Bryce Jordan Center in January of 1996.

Bruce Parkhill left a solid team that Jerry Dunn inherited. The Lions roared out to a 13-0 start and ascended to No. 9 in the Associated Press poll, their first-ever visit to the Top 10 — until now.

The starting five of Pete Lisicky, Dan Earl, Glenn Sekunda, Matt Gaudio and Calvin Booth were experienced and talented, and their success coupled with the new building set a season average home attendance record of 14,823 that still stands.

Sekunda, a Syracuse transfer and a missing piece for the Lions who later played eight seasons in Europe (not to mention some time in the Mansion Park Summer Basketball League), has enjoyed watching this ride.

“My memories of the Jordan Center have always been great,” Sekunda, who lives in State College, said. “We played most of the Big Ten season in that building to sold-out crowds. When it’s full, it’s a great atmosphere. When there’s half that, it’s more of a challenge to create that atmosphere.”

The Lions are creating it this year. They ride an eight-game win streak — their longest such stretch since joining the Big Ten in 1992 — going into Tuesday night’s game with Illinois.

At 20-5, they’ve climbed to No. 9 in the AP poll, one spot ahead of Kentucky and three ahead of Villanova. For the first time in the poll’s history, the Lions are the highest-ranked Pennsylvania team, ahead of ‘Nova, Temple, Pitt, Duquesne and St. Joseph’s — teams they’ve either historically looked up to or struggled with.

They’ve already punched their NCAA ticket and are projected as high as a No. 3 seed, barring a late-season slide.

ESPN’s Seth Greenberg raved last week that Penn State is “Final Four good.”

While the 1995-96 team stormed out of the gate, it lost five of its last eight, including as a five seed to 12th-seeded and defending NCAA champion Arkansas in a tough matchup that featured a wide disparity of team speed.

“Arkansas kind of stumbled and didn’t get a high ranking,” Sekunda said. “They were a very good 12 seed, and we did not have one of our better nights — me in particular.”

This year’s Lions are deeper. They’ve also been excellent on the road, winning at Michigan State, Michigan and Purdue.

Myreon Jones hit five 3-pointers at Michigan State, backup Curtis Jones made six in Ann Arbor, and the Lions, behind Mike Watkins’ double-double, stunningly let the steam out of the Boilers quickly on Tuesday night.

Keep in mind no one wins at Purdue. In its last six years at home, Purdue is 89-8. Further back, as anyone knows who’s heard his epic rant apparently taped by a coy mole, the Boilers did their part in driving Bob Knight over the edge.

“I’m sick and (expletive) tired of losing to Purdue,” The General railed.

Pat Chambers must have been, too, and it’s refreshing to see that his game coaching appears to have caught up to his recruiting.

A lock for Big Ten coach of the year who has done one of the best jobs in the country, Chambers almost certainly will be rewarded with a significant contract extension.

“I like their roster,” Sekunda said. “They’ve got good guard play. This kid Myreon Jones shoots it with a lot of confidence. (Myles) Dread — you can’t leave him. (Lamar) Stevens is a talent, kind of their rock, and I see Watkins as a difference-maker.”

Stevens, recent member of the 2,000-point behind career leader Battle (2,213) and Arnelle (2,183), has shown unselfish play — first in returning for his senior year and second in how he shares the ball.

A different hero, including underclassmen role players Izaiah Brockington, Seth Lundy, Jamari Wheeler and John Harrar, emerges each night.

“I don’t see them being overly reliant on one person, and that helps a lot,” Sekunda said. “Pat has a group of players this year who can really do well. He’s got perimeter play and their bigs so they’ve got both bases covered. When they move the ball up the court and get stops and force bad shots, they get out in transition, and that alleviates some of the pressure on your offense.”

The Lions are not only winning, they’ve been entertaining.

“It’s really nice to see,” Sekunda said. “You always want your alma mater to do well. Penn State struggled in basketball for a number of years, and it feels like this year they’re starting to tap that success, which everyone’s been hoping for. They’re getting respect nationally, and that’s not given out easily. Nothing’s been given to them. They’ve earned everything.”

There will be those who question why it took Chambers this long — nine seasons — and others who will wonder if this can be sustained beyond this year. Fair enough.

For now, though, the march to the madness that has usually rung hollow at Penn State is in high gear.

Enjoy it.

Rudel can be reached at 946-7527 or nrudel@altoonamirror.com.

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