Penn State Basketball Probably Isn't Making the NCAA Tournament. Here's Their Best Shot.

By Bill DiFilippo on March 9, 2018 at 8:34 am
Jan 4, 2017; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach Pat Chambers reacts during the second half against the Michigan Wolverines at Crisler Center. Michigan won 72-69. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports


Before we start, we have to address something really, really obvious: Penn State's almost certainly going to miss out on the NCAA Tournament. It's very hard to find a path to the Tournament that ends with the Nittany Lions being among the field of 68, and in all likelihood, Pat Chambers' squad will be an NIT team this year. I think that's fine. You may disagree. Whatever.

What we are here to do, though, is figure out what needs to happen for the one or two paths that would end with Penn State participating in March Madness to come to fruition. The important thing to acknowledge is that it's dependent on a pair of things happening. One would be nearly unprecedented, and the other would require all the stuff that we love about this stupid time of year not happening.

The latter is much easier to explain: For Penn State to make it in, the conference tournaments around the sport have to be as boring as humanly possible. This means that the mid-major and low-major tournaments are won by the teams that are already safely in — an example of this is the West Coast Conference, which had two teams that have been considered in (Gonzaga and St. Mary's) and a whole bunch of teams that were out. The Bulldogs made the final and rinsed a BYU squad that isn't even on the bubble, which was the best possible result as its auto-bid didn't go to a team that could take a spot away from the Nittany Lions.

In major-conference tournaments, it's even easier. Here are the teams that Joe Lunardi currently has in. You are to root for the ones that are safely in to win the conference, and for the teams that are either right on the bubble or just off of it to lose early. That sucks, because those teams are what make this time of year so much fun, but we have a vested interest in Penn State making the Tournament, people. Stay focused.

This all, theoretically, clears the path. It's also very boring. No one likes watching March basketball where the outcomes are as close to chalk as possible, but let's hope that once the Tournament roles around, games get crazy and as many double-digit seeds move on as possible.

The nearly unprecedented part is, shockingly, far more difficult to see happening. It basically involves the people on the committee ignoring Penn State's traditional resume in favor of things that are less-commonly considered parts of a tournament resume.

Here's the current situation: The Nittany Lions are 80th in RPI and 76th in Strength of Schedule. They're 3-5 against RPI top-50 teams, all three of those wins are against Ohio State. They're also 3-4 against teams rated 51st through 100th in RPI — the wins are against Montana, Nebraska, and Maryland. Basically, Penn State is hanging its hat on three wins against one team as its strongest "traditional" argument, and that doesn't even get into the four losses to teams outside of the RPI top-100. Not included in those losses is Rider, which lost its first conference tournament game. There's also the whole "they came in sixth in what is universally considered a down year in the Big Ten" thing, and that the team's non-conference slate was — emphasis mine — B O O T Y.

Reading that all kinda sucked, right? Put that resume up against the resume of most other bubble teams, especially ones with more varied good wins, and you'd have to really bend over backwards to get the Nittany Lions in the field of 68 this year.

What is working in the team's favor, though, is how it is viewed by more advanced metrics. "Various computer metrics" are one of the things members of the committee are allowed to use as they try to determine inclusion into the Tournament. Here are some of said computer metrics, all as of 10:30 p.m. on Wednesday night:

T-Rank: 24th

ESPN BPI: 27th

KenPom: 30th

Sagarin: 38th

Let's solely look at the most prominent of these metrics, KenPom. That's the easiest one to get historical data on as it relates to the Tournament, and it's the one that is most frequently referenced (compared to the other four, at least) when discussing how good a team is compared to everyone else.

At 30th, Penn State would be something of a rarity to miss out on the Tournament since Ken Pomeroy's site launched in 2002. Being a high-major team in the top-30 of KenPom has, historically, worked out well. The entire list of eligible top-30 squads to miss out in the history of the metric looks like this:

  • 2017 TCU (29th)
  • 2013 Baylor (28th)
  • 2013 Iowa (29th)
  • 2007 Clemson (29th)
  • 2006 Michigan (28th)
  • 2006 Notre Dame (29th)
  • 2005 Ohio State (30th)
  • 2004 Florida State (26th)
  • 2002 South Carolina (20th)

The '02 Gamecocks are a major outlier, while the '04 Seminoles are, uh, a slightly less major outlier. Otherwise, while Penn State is in the zone where teams get left out — ranked between 28th and 30th — it's still extremely rare for this to happen. There have been nine teams in 16 years that have earned this distinction, and while past results aren't indicative of future outcomes, it's still a sign that teams this high are generally viewed very favorably by the committee.

There's also an argument to be made that the praise Penn State has received nation-wide helps their case. Think, for instance, of stuff like this from Purdue coach Matt Painter.

Or something like this, from Chris Holtmann of Ohio State.

Or even something like this from ESPN's Joe Lunardi.

These things, ultimately, don't matter too terribly much, but they are a glimpse into the fact that this is a legitimately good Nittany Lion team, and that they have drawn the attention and praise of people from outside of our weird corner of the internet.

We have a few more days until we find out whether all of this is enough to get Penn State into its first NCAA Tournament since 2011. Smart money is on Tony Carr and the rest of the crew heading to the NIT, but there's just enough out there that presents reasons for optimism.

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