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Giger: Fans should climb on PSU hoops bandwagon

UNIVERSITY PARK — Penn State absolutely has a great chance to make the NCAA Tournament this season.

Yes, it’s true.

Really.

No, reeeaaallly.

I know, I know, PSU hoops history has beaten down so many college basketball fans around here that you just simply will not let yourself believe in the Nittany Lions.

If fans let themselves have high hopes at all — and that wasn’t even possible with last year’s 0-10 start in the Big Ten — those hopes have been dashed time and time again by one bad loss after another.

This year has a chance to be different.

Penn State proved why in Tuesday night’s 76-69 win over No. 4 and previously unbeaten Maryland at the Bryce Jordan Center.

“I think we have a team that’s for the history books,” star senior Lamar Stevens said after the huge win, which culminated with the students storming the court.

It’s early in the season, and the Big Ten schedule will provide major challenges. But Penn State has a high-quality basketball team that’s good on both ends of the court, has depth, experience and a solid big man inside.

All the components are there for this squad to go dancing in March.

The Lions have to take care of business on the court and win the games they’re supposed to win, as well as a few other upsets. They’re 8-2 with nice victories over Georgetown, Syracuse, Yale and now a huge one over an outstanding Maryland team.

Time will tell if PSU will indeed win the games it’s supposed to win and finish no worse than the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. If the Lions do that — and they actually are capable of doing so much more — they will go to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

“This game could help us in March,” PSU coach Patrick Chambers said after Tuesday’s win. “It’s not going to punch our ticket, but it’s definitely going to help us get where we’re trying to go.”

Many college basketball experts already have predicted Penn State will make the tournament. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Lions as a No. 9 seed in his early bracketology, and Dick Vitale jumped on the bandwagon following Tuesday’s win.

“This will be the year Coach Chambers will take the Nittany Lions to the marchmadness,” Vitale wrote on Twitter.

“I thought Penn State was terrific,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said after watching his team lose for the first time.

Yes, Penn State was terrific Tuesday, and the timing could not have been better.

The Lions were coming off a disastrous game at Ohio State on Saturday, losing, 106-74. That final score looks awful, no doubt, but the No. 3 Buckeyes might be the best team in the country right now, as they own 25-point wins over both North Carolina and Villanova.

Chambers had a lot of anxiety coming off Saturday’s blowout loss and heading into a matchup with a strong Maryland team.

“I’m proud of my team,” Chambers said after the win. “I was concerned. I was concerned. After Ohio state, we haven’t lost like that in a long time. We’ve got to respond.”

The Lions certainly did respond, and they did so in front of a national TV audience and terrific crowd of 8,643 at the BJC that was loud and engaged the entire evening.

This caliber of win, this early in the season should inspire even the most casual PSU basketball followers. Many of them have been highly critical of Chambers — and rightfully so in many ways — over the years because he’s never reached the NCAA Tournament in his first eight seasons.

Beating the No. 4 team in the country before Christmas is exactly the kind of win Chambers needed. Last year’s squad got buried early on in the Big Ten, and Stevens wasn’t joking when he said this, which drew some laughs in the media room.

“In previous years, one loss may lead to two or three or four — or 10. But this team is different.”

Penn State basketball’s slogan is “Climb With Us,” and the school markets that well. Before the game, BJC’s giant video board puts up in huge letters “Climb On.”

It’s typically been tough for fans to start any kind of climb in confidence, though, because Penn State has laid so many eggs in so many big situations over the years.

There have been big wins — Chambers has now beaten the No. 4 team in the country three times during his tenure, which is impressive — but the first two (Iowa and Michigan) have come late in seasons when the Lions were already out of NCAA Tournament contention.

Tuesday’s win gave fans reason to jump on the bandwagon, reason to have some faith in this team.

Reason to climb.

“For the fan base, it just shows how talented we are,” Stevens said of the win. “This is a really exciting team to watch, and we have a lot of fun pieces.”

Still, had PSU lost to Maryland and dropped to 0-2 in the Big Ten, there easily could have been a “here we go again” kind of attitude from fans early in the season.

“We already had some buzz on campus,” Chambers said of the positive vibes around the team. “There’s going to be energy, there’s going to be excitement around this program.

“Momentum is so important. This program and this team has that momentum.”

Now the Lions must figure out ways to keep it for the next three months so they can finally be fitted for some dancing shoes.

Cory Giger can be reached at cgiger@altoonamirror.com.

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