COLLEGE BASKETBALL / CHRIS DUFRESNE : Penn State Also Plays With Round Ball

You know the Penn State story. The coach wears Coke-bottle lenses and flood-watch trousers, wins a national title every decade or so and runs an assembly-line operation that forwards the finished product to NFL headquarters.

Then, of course, there are those plain-wrap uniforms . . . ah, what's this?

The story is Penn State basketball?

Turns out the school not only fields a squad, but one that can shoot and dribble. Better than the Frank Brickowski-led pack of the late 1970s. Better then the gutty Bob Weiss-driven squad of 1964-65.

OK, there's not much history, except for what's being made now.

From the conference that brought you Northwestern football comes the 11-0 basketball Nittany Lions, ready to pluck a few more chords on America's heartstrings.

Granted, it's early, but not too soon in central Pennsylvania to start singing "Oh Happy [Valley] Days."

First-year Coach Jerry Dunn is trying to keep the cap fastened on overheated radiators, but facts are facts:

--At 11-0, the Nittany Lions are off to the best start in the basketball program's 100-year history.

--They began the week as one of four remaining undefeated Division I teams, joining Massachusetts, Cincinnati and Clemson.

--They are 2-0 in the Big Ten for the first time since joining the conference four years ago.

--They are ranked nationally, No. 20 in the Associated Press, for the first times in 31 years.

"This is exciting," Dunn said this week from his home, where he sought refuge from a brutal winter storm. "But I'm trying to make sure we don't get caught up in things."

Not possible.

Tonight, snow plows willing, Penn State will play host to Minnesota in the first game at the $53-million, 14,400-seat Bryce Jordan Center.

The game is a sellout.

Penn State, basketball mecca.

Joe Paterno, in fact, has become a regular at home games and an inspiration.

"There's a guy who's a legend," Dunn says of the Penn State football coach, "and he's bent over backward to help."

Dunn is some story himself. A 12-year assistant, he took over the head job when Bruce Parkhill, a burnout case, resigned abruptly six weeks before fall practice. Parkhill is still on the athletic department staff, but the team is Dunn's baby.

Rather than slap Dunn with an "interim" tag until a nationwide search could be launched, Penn State put its trust in the patient assistant.

"I wasn't sure where it was going to happen, or when," Dunn, 42, said. "But I started coaching with the idea of being a head coach. There were certain times when I didn't think it was going to happen."

Parkhill left the program in good shape. The Nittany Lions, in fact, have been creeping up on the Big Ten competition, improving from 2-16 in 1992-93, 6-12 in 1993-94 and 9-9 last season.

UCLA fans will recall, not fondly, the Parkhill-coached team that shocked the Bruins at Syracuse in the first round of the East Regional in the 1991 NCAA tournament.

Unfortunately for Nittany Lion supporters, it was one of the two or three greatest moments in Penn State basketball history.

COUNT THE STARS ON ONE HAND

The Penn State football program has churned out Matt Millen, Curt Warner, Shane Conlan, Ki-Jana Carter.

The basketball program has produced, well, Jesse Arnelle.

An All-American center, Arnelle led a 1954 Final Four charge that ended in defeat to LaSalle.

And who could forget 1964-65, when guard Bob Weiss, the future Clipper coach, took a 20-3 team into the NCAA tournament before losing in the first round to Bill Bradley's Princeton.

Last year's Penn State team finished 21-11 and was third in the National Invitation Tournament. This year's team should have been sapped by the loss of all-conference center John Amaechi, now with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Instead, Calvin Booth, a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman with an 88-inch reach, has come on faster than expected while two key players--forward Matt Gaudio and guard Donovan Williams, former medical redshirts--decided to return as fifth-year seniors.

This may be the year to clean up in the Big Ten, which, by most accounts, is down. If 13-5 is good enough to win it, Penn State has a chance.

The Lions played a walk-over nonconference schedule but announced their arrival Dec. 29 with a 21-point victory over Santa Clara.

If Northwestern can win the Big Ten football title, why not Penn State in basketball?

"In terms of mind-set, it is important," Dunn said of the Northwestern story. "Sometimes people start looking at banners around the league, and at past performances from the, quote, powers that be, and tend to forget that all things are possible within yourself. Northwestern, certainly, was a prime example."

IN THIS CORNER

Don King would put up placards billing Friday night's rematch of Clemson-North Carolina as "Terror at the Dean Dome" or "Tobacco Road Kill."

The game at Chapel Hill will be the first meeting between the teams since Clemson Coach Rick Barnes stormed the court and engaged legendary Dean Smith in a heated argument during last season's Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

Barnes, who has never backed down or apologized, is not taking bodyguards into the arena named after the coach he berated.

"I think, when my name is announced, there will be a lot of boos and that will be the end of it," Barnes said this week.

Pressed further, he added, "It's done, over with, resolved."

Smith, taking the high road, claims it's just another game.

But, of course, it isn't.

WHO'LL STOP THE PAIN?

Last week, Oklahoma's Kelvin Sampson became the latest coach to be sidelined because of back surgery as chiropractors across the country muttered, "Is it any wonder?"

Except for wrestlers and catchers, basketball coaches have the worst posture in sports. The way most of them twist and contort during a game (picture Kentucky Coach Rick Pitino in full squat with palms down), it's a wonder any of them can change a light bulb.

Last year, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski blew out his back. This year it's Sampson.

Who's next?

The best bet is DePaul Coach Joey Meyer. His roster now reduced to seven players because of injuries and eligibility losses, Meyer was asked if he would consider lacing up his sneakers and taking part in practice.

"When I get out there, it's all over," Meyer said. "First move I make, I'll be in traction. I'll be Mike Krzyzewski for the year."

LOOSE ENDS

The weather has been frightening east of the Mississippi, where the "Blizzard of '96" has caused the postponement and rescheduling of scores of early season conference games.

"The New Jersey Turnpike was closed," Atlantic 10 Conference spokesman Ray Cello said. "That's impossible. I've lived here all my life, I've never heard of the New Jersey Turnpike being closed."

One key ACC game postponed Tuesday was Florida State at Maryland, which may not be made up until just before the ACC tournament.

Maryland Coach Gary Williams was hopeful his team would be able to travel for Saturday's game at Wake Forest.

"Our campus is in trouble," Williams said. "We have five- and six-foot drifts in the parking lot. The Beltway is clear, but people can't get out of their houses." . . .

The loss of wide bodies such as Bryant "Big Country" Reeves (Oklahoma State) have left the Big Eight soft in the middle, one reason only one of the conference's teams, No. 3 Kansas, is ranked in the top 25. . . .

Nebraska's basketball team outscored its football team by a only a touchdown last week in its 69-68 victory over Long Beach State. . . .

It's going to be a long season for 65-year-old Fresno State Coach Jerry Tarkanian if guard Dominick Young tackles the coach after every Bulldog victory.

Monday night, after he made a last-second, three-point shot to beat No. 13 Utah, the joyous Young knocked Tark on his keister. The victory broke Utah's 27-game home winning streak, and almost Tark's neck.

A dazed Tarkanian got up slowly and eventually celebrated his team's sixth consecutive victory after a 3-4 start. . . .

The reason Clemson began the week 10-0 and ranked only 16th was a nonconference schedule that included softies North Carolina Asheville, Appalachian State, Winthrop, Charleston Southern and Furman. The Tigers took a similar course last year. They started 10-0 and finished 15-13.

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