Penn State basketball is fun again, which is a remarkable thing considering where the program was just three weeks ago. A 70-61 loss to a flailing Northwestern team dropped the Nittany Lions to 3-5 in the Big Ten. With Josh Reaves having missed four straight games due to an indefinite academic ineligibility case, it seemed that the end of the Chambers era was near.
You now know the story of how things turned around. Reaves returned just in the nick of time, getting a ride from State College to Columbus to help Penn State hand the Buckeyes their first conference loss of the season. With their junior leader back in the fold, the Lions then rattled off wins in five of their last six Big Ten games for the first time since 1996. What has this stretch done for their at-large hopes?
Fun is good. It makes a team without national championship hopes still worth watching. But is Penn State really good? More specifically, are the Nittany Lions good enough to make the NCAA Tournament?
Penn State basketball is relevant in mid February. Nittany Lions win at Illinois by 22. Have lots of chances to move the needle down the stretch.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) February 12, 2018
It is still unlikely, despite Penn State moving to 18-9 and 8-6 in conference play. Three inexcusable home losses have combined to hang around the team's neck: Wisconsin, Rider, and Minnesota. Moreover, three opportunities to balance the ledger with quality road wins have slipped through their fingers, as they fell to Maryland, Indiana, and Michigan State in frustrating fashion. They sit well on the outside looking in on nearly every NCAA Tournament projection (shout out to this site) and currently sit as a 3-seed in the most reliable NIT projection.
So there is no point in feeling sorry for this team for having to make their way through maybe the toughest stretch of their season. They played their way into needing these games.
If anything, it is a bit of a blessing in disguise that this stretch has become so tough. In early January, the Big Ten looked so down that the idea of Penn State going 11-7 in conference and seeing their bubble burst was not only possible, it seemed the more likely result. Like all bubble teams, the Lions were going to need quality wins, but due to the Big Ten's unbalanced schedule, it appeared their only opportunities would come as huge road underdogs against Michigan State and Purdue.
Fortunately, things do not look as grim as they once did. All four of Penn State's final regular season games are opportunities for quality, "Quadrant 1" wins. Even if they drop into Quadrant 2 when the regular season wraps up, the Lions will still need them on their team sheets. They currently have just three wins in Quadrants 1 and 2, but that number could double over these next two weeks. They'll face four of the top five teams in the Big Ten standings including ranked teams in No. 8 Ohio State, No. 6 Purdue, and No. 22 Michigan. They'll also travel to always-tough-at-home Nebraska who is in their own pursuit of an at-large bid.
Exactly how many games does Penn State need to win to have a legitimate chance? Who's to say for sure, but between these four games and the Big Ten Tournament at Madison Square Garden, the magic number could be four more wins. The Nittany Lions have a first round bye for the conference tournament in the bag, but a double bye is likely out of their reach. Securing the 5-seed will give them an extremely winnable opening game and a great shot for another Quadrant 1 win vs. either Nebraska or Michigan. Falling to the 6-seed will make Penn State's road much tougher, as they'll not only have to win at least two in the Big Ten tournament, but one would have to come against one of the clear top 3 teams in the league.
This is all speculation, however, because nobody can be completely sure how the changes to the selection committee's process and its team sheets will affect the selection of this year's bracket. For much of this season, it looked like Penn State would have to go 22-9 with a win in the conference tournament to overcome a terrible non-conference schedule. That could still be the case, but with the new predictive metrics (Sagarin, BPI, KenPom) favoring Penn State a lot more than the RPI, we just don't know if the committee will punish PSU for a poor strength-of-schedule like they did in 2009. We also have no idea how they'll account for Josh Reaves' absence during that 4-game suspension in January where the Lions went 1-3.
Regardless of whether they'll need four or five wins, either will be a very tall order considering what remains, but that is part of what makes this so fun. Every game from here on out matters for this team, which seemed like a laughable statement as recently as the morning of January 25th. Momentum is on the side of a Patrick Chambers-coached Penn State team in conference play for the first time in his tenure, and they have a chance to ride it into March if everything breaks right.