UNIVERSITY PARK, PA. — UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Penn State atop the Big Ten in basketball?
Right. And Northwestern can win the conference in football and go to the Rose Bowl.
The weirdness has extended into the winter in the Big Ten. The conference of Havlicek, Magic and the Fab Five is chasing none other than the Nittany Lions, who have a new coach, a new arena and a new outlook three years after they entered the Big Ten through the basement door.
"People talk about mystique," sophomore guard Pete Lisicky said, "but it comes down to five human beings against five human beings."
The Nittany Lions may not have the mystique, but they do have the human beings and some of the best team chemistry in the nation. The five starters are averaging between 14.6 and 11.9 points, and the improved depth extends into the stands.
Penn State began the season picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and playing at creaky Rec Hall. Three weeks ago, it moved into the Top 25 and the Bryce Jordan Center, where capacity will be 15,300 when the contractors are done.
Heading into tonight's game at Michigan State, the Nittany Lions are 15-1 overall, a Big Ten-leading 6-1 and ranked No. 10. It's their best start in 44 years and their highest ranking in 42.
"I don't think they have to continue to wonder about themselves," coach Jerry Dunn said after an 82-68 defeat of Indiana on Saturday.
There were concerns aplenty about Penn State heading into this season.
Calvin Booth has a school-record 69 blocks, but the freshman center was red shirted last year and wasn't recruited back home by Ohio State. Matt Gaudio, the power forward, missed all of last season after back surgery.
Then there was Dunn, who went into the Labor Day weekend as an assistant to Bruce Parkhill, and came out of it as his successor.
Parkhill, a local boy made good, fought to bring Penn State into the big time, and the task wore on him to the extent that he !! resigned Sept. 6, citing burnout. The administration announced his resignation and Dunn's elevation at the same news $l conference, and the sole glitch in the transition has been a one-point loss to Michigan on a defensive lapse Jan. 21.
"People were depressed initially when Parkhill left," said Glenn Sekunda, the leading scorer, "but we dealt with the change and moved on."
Dunn, who began his coaching career as a volunteer assistant in 1977, came to Penn State in 1983, when Parkhill was named coach. Parkhill, now an assistant athletic director and analyst on Nittany Lions telecasts, said he doesn't feel any awkwardness seeing the players he recruited and the program he built succeeding without him.
"I'm more proud than anything," Parkhill said. "The program is finally getting the attention it deserves. The people who have been taken by surprise by all of this are undereducated."
Parkhill guided Penn State to four straight 20-win seasons and the second round of the NCAA tournament five years ago. Before that, however, the Nittany Lions were a model of mediocrity, winning one game in six Atlantic 10 tournaments. After the 1988-92 run in which they won 87 games, they moved to the Big Ten and sank from sight again.
Penn State was 2-16 in its inaugural Big Ten season, but it grew to 6-12 and 9-9 last season, when it finished third in the National Invitation Tournament. With burly center John Amaechi gone to the Cleveland Cavaliers and the coaching change, would the Nittany Lions continue to progress?
Behind Lisicky and point guard Dan Earl, the Nittany Lions lead the nation in three-point shooting, but they score inside, rebound and defend. More than anything, they're attuned to each other.
"They play basketball better than anyone," Indiana coach Bob Knight said. "They're alert to each other. They play to each other. Of the teams we've played, I'd rather watch them than anyone."
Knight wasn't as complimentary when the Big Ten added Penn State, saying it "was a camping trip."
The Bryce Jordan Center cost $55 million, and though there probably aren't enough hotel rooms in the vicinity to secure an NCAA sub-regional tournament, at least Rod Stewart, the World Wrestling Federation and the Nittany Lions have a big-time place to play. The arena is nestled next to Beaver Stadium, and Penn State coaches no longer make it a quick visit when they show their home court to recruits.
The Nittany Lions signed two players in the early period, including Carl Jackson, a 6-foot-8 wide-body from Wilde Lake, and Dunn said that Penn State has to expand its recruiting horizons to be a consistent force in the Big Ten.
"We weren't really prepared for our first couple of years," said Dunn, who shared Parkhill's apprehension about entering the Big Ten. "We know our recruiting base has to grow. We're stuck in between the Big East and the ACC, and we're the only Big Ten team in the East. We're in a different situation, but it's certainly workable."
The Big Ten would agree.
Penn State (15-1) has climbed to No. 10 in the AP Top 25 -- its highest ranking since the 1953-54 team finished ninth -- and leads the Big Ten at 6-1. A look at Big Ten statistics shows why the Nittany Lions are in first place for the first time since joining the conference for the 1992-93 season.
.. .. .. ... .. .. .. .. .. Conf.
Statistic .. .. .. .. .. .. rank
Scoring . .. .. .. 81.3 ... 2nd
Scoring def. .. .. 62.9 ... 1st
Scoring margin ... 18.4 ... 1st
Field goal pct. .. 50.2 ... 1st
Opp. FG pct. .. .. 39.6 ... 1st
3 pt. FG pct. . .. 47.3 ... 1st
Opp. 3 pt. FG pct. 34.9 ... 7th
Free throw pct. .. 69.3 ... 2nd
Rebounds ... .. .. 40.4 ... 3rd
Opp. rebounds . .. 31.1 ... 2nd
Reb. margin ... ... 9.4 ... 2nd
Steals .. .. .. ... 7.7 ... 4th
Blocked shots . ... 6.0 ... 1st
Turnover margin .. -0.4 ... 6th