Penn State has gone through some tough times with its basketball program over the last few years — well, for a lot of years, but the last decade has been especially frustrating. The team has perpetually sucked, even with the silver lining of players the caliber of D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier. The venue sucks for basketball. The lack of national exposure sucks. Really, everything about Penn State hoops — except for a few players, a small, passionate fanbase, and the fact that Pat Chambers is a P.R. wizard — sucks.
However, one thing that sucks more than anything else, more than losing or the BJC or the heartburn you get after having nine $1 hot dogs, is the crowds at games. Mother of God, the crowds at Penn State basketball games — the crowds that I’m usually a part of — are quite possibly the most pathetic crowds in all of major college basketball.
People seem to forget that just three years ago, Penn State was one of the 64 best college basketball teams in America. Led by seniors Talor Battle and Jeff Brooks, the Bryce Jordan Center was routinely packed, and Nittany Lion fans were awesome. The baseline was always full and the seats behind both baskets were full for most of the conference games, too. There was no talk of it being a terrible student section, because that would have been a lie. Fans weren’t as passionate as they are at elite basketball schools, but the BJC was still an intimidating place to play.
Hell, look at 2009, when Penn State won the NIT. A total of 36 busses carried fans from State College to Madison Square Garden, where Nittany Lion fans gave the team a home court advantage in the World’s Most Famous Arena. But something has changed, despite Pat Chambers being out in the community trying to sell tickets far more than Ed DeChellis ever was. For some reason, driving to MSG was easier than “go to a game in 2014 and act like you have a pulse.”
Here’s how bad it is: This season, Penn State men’s basketball has played 13 games at the Bryce Jordan Center, a venue that holds just over 15,200 people for basketball games. In those 13 games, the Nittany Lions have drawn approximately 5,950 people on average. Nobody goes to games. There can be excellent promotions or an elite opponent, and yet for some reason, the BJC is perpetually empty.
But the emptiness isn’t always the problem; sometimes it’s the lifelessness. Take, for example, Sunday’s 60-55 loss against Illinois. As a student body, we knew that Illinois was bringing more than 100 students to the game, with the intent of embarrassing our school. There’s a reason Orange Krush does this little stunt against Penn State and not Michigan State or Indiana — those schools have student sections that would never allow that to happen.
They came. They did exactly what they said they would do: wore Penn State colors until the tip, then ripped it off to reveal their Illini gear, and spent the rest of the game cheering. 150 people from Illinois tucked into a far corner of the BJC? That shouldn’t have made any impact.
Instead, 150 Illinois students were more raucous, better choreographed, and more into the game than the several hundred members of Penn State’s student section. At one point during a media time out — when about 90 percent of the student section sat down — Orange Krush chanted “STAND UP!” It was the kind of thing that would have embarrassed any competent student section. However, it motivated a small portion of students to be louder…and those were the students (mostly hardcore members of Nittany Nation) who didn’t sit down during the media time out in the first place.
There are a variety of reasons why things like that happen, and the debate flared up once again after the game on Twitter. The main reason, of course, is the team’s performance and lack of tradition that helps ignite the fanbase.
A handful of students, who are usually the most passionate, sit directly behind the basket opposite of the band, and are rendered useless once the opposing team is going towards the opposite hoop. The rest are scattered haphazardly courtside opposite of the benches. Sometimes they cheer. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they stand. Sometimes they sit down. If you made a movie about a bad basketball team, and needed a student section that reflected its incompetence, it would be modeled after Penn State’s courtside student section.
A lot of this is due to this weird feeling of apathy that Penn State students have towards the basketball team. There are approximately 40,000 people on campus. The fact that 1,500 or so students can’t find a way to give a shit about their college basketball team is completely mind blowing.
As for solutions to this obvious problem, that’s tough. The easiest solution is to put out a product that people want to see, which is fair. The team is 34-52 since Chambers took over and, by all accounts, has underperformed this season. But that shouldn’t matter. All over the country, fans show up to games, and Penn State is constantly the butt of multiple jokes for being awful.
There also needs to be a way to get students involved in cheers to make the section better choreographed. Usually, it’s just the front few rows of Nittany Nation diehards that actually do the chants and cheers. “Go….State Go” just isn’t getting anyone pumped up anymore. Hell, most of the chants are started by the band — that should never be the case.
One day, hopefully, getting people to games won’t be an issue. Hopefully students will finally see a team that they have no qualms about supporting, and losses happen less frequently than wins. But that’s not happening now. Now, Penn State basketball’s student section is, quite possibly, the worst in the major conferences.
Unfortunately, until the students give a shit, that’s not going to change.