Thursday, July 29, 2021
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Rediscovering Happy Valley: Lions-Hoosiers Hoops Connection

You know that old, tired analogy — at least I think it’s tired — of Penn State basketball equaling Indiana football?

Well, I gained a unique perspective of this comparison after attending graduate school at IU and then living in Indiana for an additional three years.

I’m guessing this topic came up at least once earlier this month, when the Hoosiers earned a 79-76 victory at the Bryce Jordan Center.

To be fair, this comparison makes a lot of sense to outsiders, and probably even to some people associated with the universities; I know, I’ve had many conversations on this topic with fans of both schools.

But I still don’t buy it.

The reasoning goes that fans look upon both programs with an apathetic perspective. That’s somewhat true, I suppose, when compared to Indiana basketball and Penn State football.

But I’ve always contended, looking somewhat foolishly in the process, that both teams are much closer to reaching national prominence than most people realize.

Before I get to that, first the good stuff.

Indiana basketball is as amazing as described. Watching a game at Assembly Hall is equivalent to a religious experience. I know that sounds cliché, but there’s really no better way to describe what it’s like being there.

Visiting that basketball shrine should be on every fan’s bucket list.

The image that’s portrayed in the movie “Hoosiers?” It’s every bit true. I covered high school basketball for three years in Indiana and saw former IU center and current NBA pro Cody Zeller play a handful of times in his prep career, though I just missed seeing Yogi Ferrell, IU’s starting point guard, in high school.

Ferrell’s Indianapolis-based high school battled a school in my coverage area in a four-overtime classic for the right to play in the state championship. I was regaled of the game many times in my first year out of grad school, and it’s probably a game people will speak of forever. I’m not exaggerating. Major League third baseman Scott Rolen attended high school in the area where I worked and people still talk of his athletic achievements as if they happened the week before.

Basketball in Indiana is very much the lifeblood of the state. To say that football comes in second is putting it nicely, though I always enjoyed covering the IU football team and attending games.

I also became friends with Chuck Crabb, the legendary IU public address announcer who was sitting a few feet from Bobby Knight when he infamously threw that chair across the court.

Chuck is still working games and very much involved with all aspects of IU athletics, and I have a signed basketball from him, a very special memento.

So yes, Indiana basketball holds a very special spot for me, just like Penn State football.

Now, regarding the ongoing dilemma as to why Indiana football and Penn State basketball fail to capture the same type of spirit.

There’s any number of reasons, but as I’ve said, both programs are closer to the top than the bottom; any of the reasons I lay out for the struggles in Penn State basketball are analogous to Indiana football.

For as long as I can remember, and I’ve been watching Penn State basketball since I was born, the team’s main problems are self-imposed: unnecessary fouls (penalties), missed free throws (dropped passes), sluggish play (use whatever horrible word you want to describe IU’s defense).

I can’t decide whether or not it’s extremely frustrating or somewhat optimistic that many of Penn State’s problems could be fixed immediately since the players’ biggest bugaboos are oftentimes themselves.

Think about it — with few exceptions, Penn State doesn’t encounter an opponent that’s significantly more athletic. Teams such as Michigan State, Indiana and Ohio State are able to produce All-Americans, but it’s not like Penn State withers in comparison when facing many other teams.

Minnesota, for example, recently escaped with a win, but the Golden Gophers didn’t steamroll the Nittany Lions with superior athletic ability.

Penn State shot horribly from the foul line late in the game and committed unnecessary fouls time and time again when the ball was at midcourt or even farther away from the basket.

That stuff drives fans crazy, and makes it difficult to galvanize support. I didn’t stick around for the press conference after the Minnesota game, but I watched the video and saw how frustrated Coach Chambers looked. I could relate.

After the Indiana game, Chambers’ frustration was even more evident — at one point, he slammed his fist down on the table in describing his loss. I stuck around this time and wondered to myself if the players share his high level of frustration.

Whether or not the team enjoys a renaissance under Chambers is to be seen, but if it doesn’t happen, I’m not blaming him. He’s putting the team in a position to win, and that’s the biggest thing you can ask of a coach.

To say that Penn State can rise to the same level of Indiana in basketball isn’t a relevant argument. The Hoosiers have earned that distinction over decades, and even then there were rough patches the program had to endure. But it’s not unreasonable to expect a school that has the resources of Penn State to consistently win between 17-21 games and compete for an NCAA Tournament bid every year.

The NIT should be the backup plan, not a happily achieved goal.

The biggest reason I never bought into the apathetic viewpoint of Penn State fans toward the basketball program is because that word, “apathetic,” doesn’t align with what Penn State is all about and works toward.

The fans and the team deserve to know what it’s like to experience games in an atmosphere similar to Assembly Hall.

I do, and it’s pretty damn awesome.