STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- A year ago, when Penn State finished a 15-year association with the Atlantic 10 Conference, West Virginia or Temple or Rhode Island would have been the fare. Next season, when it enters the Big Ten, Penn State players and fans will be getting up for Indiana and Ohio State and Michigan.
This year, however, the Nittany Lions are in the no-man's land of independent status, and coach Bruce Parkhill had to scramble to put together a 28-game schedule. The road portion concludes tonight (8 o'clock) at the Baltimore Arena against UMBC.
With 90 percent of the nation's Division I teams gearing up for postseason conference tournaments that could land them in the NCAA tournament, Penn State (17-7) probably is looking at an NIT appearance for the third time in the past four years. It hasn't been a happy episode for a program whose strength of schedule rating from last season to next looks like a growth chart gone haywire.
"There's no comparison between being an independent and playing in a league," said Parkhill, who came here in 1983. "It's tougher than I thought. Players and fans identify with rivalries.
"I sensed at the end of December that we didn't have the excitement that a 7-0 team should have. We were lackluster and flat, and under normal circumstances, getting ready for conference play would have made things fine."
A year ago, Penn State put together a late-season charge that culminated in a first-round upset of UCLA, its first NCAA win since 1955.
The Nittany Lions entered last season knowing it would be their last in the Atlantic 10, but it wasn't until January 1991 that Parkhill learned that 1992-93 would be their first in the Big Ten. He was preparing for two years as an independent and had to discard home-and-away arrangements that were lined up over this season and next.
Duquesne and Temple of the Atlantic 10 and Illinois and Ohio State of the Big Ten helped out this season, but Parkhill was left with many holes to fill. Four schools -- UMBC, American, Old Dominion and Butler, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference leader and the only one that did the Nittany Lions' strength-of-schedule rating any good -- are on the schedule twice.
"We had to take who we could get," Parkhill said. "I was concerned that we weren't even going to get 28 games. It was toughest to get games in January and February, when everyone's worrying about their own conference."
Penn State's regular season concludes March 2 against American, and then it's a two-week wait before the NCAA's 64-team field is announced. Reverse overtime losses to James Madison, Penn and Temple and the Nittany Lions could anticipate an at-large berth. Instead, they'll probably be staying up late March 15, waiting for the NIT to call.
The stakes rise next season, when the Nittany Lions become the 11th member of the Big Ten and play 18 conference games. Penn State is competing for Big Ten championships in 18 sports this academic year, and football, the impetus for the move, will join in 1993.
Indiana coach Bob Knight has been a critic of Big Ten expansion, but knocks about travel to Penn State are misleading. Notre Dame's football team, no small traveling party, did fly into University Park Airport last November.
For Parkhill, the positives keep coming.
"We're going to be getting the type of exposure you don't get unless you're in a major conference," said Parkhill, who starts two players from Florida. "When I first got here, it was it was easier to recruit the further away we went. Now, we have a lot to offer to a high school player on the East Coast."