Penn State Basketball: Wisconsin Blueprint The Light At The End Of The Tunnel
The notion that Penn State basketball will forever be anchored to the bottom of the ocean of college basketball is not an uncommon opinion.
Losing, and a lot of it, has its way of making people suspect that more losing is on the way.
While this long-standing tradition of sorts has become the expected and perhaps for many years the accepted outcome, it doesn't have to be.
Just look at Wisconsin, a team one win from a national title.
To be sure, the Badgers are light years ahead of where Penn State stands right now. That much is obvious, but a look in the history books shows that Wisconsin basketball has not traveled down the winning road for long.
For example, from 1953 through the 1988-89 season the Badgers averaged well under 9,000 fans per game aside from two seasons sprinkled in the middle of that span. Sure, the Khol Center didn't open until 1998 and the older venue held fewer people. However the point remains. A building that wasn't quite full in a town with enough people to do it, and a span of decades where losing seasons were the norm. Nearly three decades worth of losing year after year with the occasional exception from time to time.
The moment things changed for good is hard to pinpoint, but the winning and the Big Ten titles became the new normal when Bo Ryan rode into town in 2001. Aside from a few occasional flashes in the pan, Wisconsin was middle of the pack in its best years, bobbing up and down the standings on a regular basis. The 90s proved to be a turning point for the Badgers prior to the Ryan era, but he created stability that has existed since.
Ryan brought in his players, guys who weren't always flashy but they were always fundamentally sound. They bought into a system, he bought into them and between the two they created one of the most consistent forces in college basketball.
For Penn State, Wisconsin basketball is nothing more than proof that it is possible to take a losing program and turn it into a winner. It's proof that winning in the Big Ten isn't impossible to do, even as the program grows. One of Wisconsin's first Big Ten titles under Ryan came the same year the Badgers stumbled out of the gate losing to all kinds of poor teams. The success was profound but it wasn't without bumps in the road.
How Penn State athletic director Sandy Barbour uses the Wisconsin blueprint for her own needs and wants at the Jordan Center remains to be seen. So far Barbour has said all of the right things to lead you to believe she's serious about winning, but it's not as though she wins over many fans by saying anything else. It's entirely possible the Big Ten Network revenue stream that inflates the basketball program's contribution to athletics department's pocketbook is good enough for her, but that doesn't make for a good selling point.
But even if Wisconsin's route to success doesn't fit at Penn State, it's proof that you don't have to settle for perception.