Column: Dreaming of the dance

On the one hand, Penn State basketball fans -- not to mention the reporters who cover the team -- don't mind that they didn't travel to see the Nittany Lions play in an NCAA tournament game this week; it frees up a lot more time for watching the rest of the action during what are arguably the four best days of basketball each year.

Chambers and his team have shown the ability to beat the nation's best but would love to do it on a bigger stage.

On the other, the fans would gladly miss taking in a few buzzer-beaters from their couches if it meant they could be watching Penn State live in the Big Dance.

I know Penn State football fans have the highest of aspirations for Bill O'Brien and his boys -- national titles, Big Ten titles, merciless beat-downs of Urban Meyer and the Buckeyes -- sanctions be damned. I think Penn State basketball fans would be satisfied with much less. They don't need to see the Nittany Lions contending for conference titles or knocking off a top-five Indiana or Michigan State team each winter.

They would settle for watching Penn State play in the most famed tournament in collegiate athletics each year.

The appeal of the NCAA tournament is the contrast -- east vs. west, big-conference vs. small-conference, high-scoring, uptempo vs. uh, Wisconsin. We'd love to watch Indiana run up against Louisville in the national final, but to get there, they'll have both had to scratch out five wins, at least one of which was likely over an upstart underdog. Time and again, we've seen teams without superior talent play together, make big runs, hit a couple 3-pointers they wouldn't usually even try, and send Goliath home in stunned silence.

Of the 68 teams in the field each year, there are realistically only about 16-20 who have the skill, the depth, the savvy and the coaching to win six games in three weeks against that kind of field. But there are also anywhere from 30-45 teams capable of getting through the first frenetic weekend alive.

I've written at length this season about the style of basketball Patrick Chambers has implemented at Penn State -- tough, gritty, usually not pretty but always relentless -- and it's a style I believe would hold up quite nicely in that first weekend, when bodies fly around, every possession is huge and you have 4-5 days to prepare for your first opponent and about 40-45 hours to prepare for the second.

First, though, the Nittany Lions have to get there, and 2-16 conference seasons aren't gonna cut it. But the same reason Penn State had so many losses this season is the same reason it should feel encouraged about its future prospects of joining the field -- the strength of the Big Ten. Go 9-9 in conference play in this league, put together a non-conference slate that's at least respectable and it's very, very difficult to get shut out of the field.

A seven-win jump in one season is asking a lot, but, if nothing else, a backcourt of Tim Frazier, D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall should give Penn State a chance in the vast majority of its home games next season and should cut down on the number of lopsided road defeats. If Ross Travis and Brandon Taylor continue to develop and the Nittany Lions can get some decent contributions from what appears to be a promising freshman class … well, you never know.

To consistently compete against the Big Ten's top teams, Penn State is going to need the caliber of player it has only had every few years up and down its roster. But to make the NCAA tournament field and cause a little trouble once there, it just needs about 20 wins and a few breaks. And once you hit the dance floor, as we'll be reminded of once again this weekend, all bets are off.

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