Can Penn State Basketball Climb to the Top of the Big Ten Standings?

By Eric Gibson on February 3, 2020 at 10:55 am
Mike Watkins
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports
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I am sick and tired of writing every Penn State basketball story through the lens of "Will PSU make the NCAA tournament?" At 16-5 (6-4 in the B1G), the Nittany Lions are not even close to the bubble right now and would be safely in the field as of today. Things may have gotten dicey for a second when PSU dropped three straight in mid-January, but Pat Chambers' team has since righted the ship with four straight wins covers over Ohio State, Michigan, Indiana, and Nebraska. 

Sights could be set a little higher for this Penn State team than just "make the NCAA tournament". After Illinois' loss to Iowa yesterday, the Lions sit just one game back in the loss column from first place! In a season where the Big Ten is the highest rated conference on KenPom, your Nittany Lions are in contention for the regular season crown and a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament. 

There are still 10 games remaining on the Nits' schedule, so this championship talk is probably a bit premature. The Lions should be more focused on cracking the top four for the double-bye seeding. But if Penn State's able to pull the upset in East Lansing tomorrow night, this Big Ten championship dream could get very real, very fast.  

School Record Home Losses Road Wins Home Games 
Road Games
NEB/NW Games
Illinois 8-3 - WIS, PUR, MICH 5 4 NEB, @ NW
Michigan St 8-3 - NW, MIN 4 5 @ NEB
Maryland 7-3 - NW, IND 5 5 NEB, NW
Rutgers 7-4 - NEB 4 5 NW
Iowa 7-4 - NW 4 5 NEB
Penn State 6-4 WIS MICH, NEB 5 5 NW, @ NW
Wisconsin 6-5 ILL OSU, PSU 5 4 @ NEB, NW
Minnesota 5-6 MSU OSU 5 4 @ NW, NEB
Purdue 5-6 ILL NW 5 4 -
Indiana 5-6 MD NEB 5 4 -
Ohio St 4-6 WIS, MIN NW 5 5 @ NEB
Michigan 4-6 PSU, ILL NEB 5 5 @ NW, NEB

Despite yesterday's loss, Illinois still holds the best position with five weeks to go. They're undefeated at home, and they've won the most road games to date. With a manageable schedule remaining, you can make a case the Illini might actually be the favorite. How they fare during this five-game stretch against five ranked teams will determine how the rest of the league will shake out. 

Michigan State's still projected as the favorite by the computers and probably the writers, as well. They have Cassius Winston and other Big Ten teams do not. While they've won their six home games all by double digits, they have not looked great on the road. A loss at home to Penn State on Tuesday night would really flip this conference race upside-down. 

Maryland has won four in a row, even if they haven't necessarily played the best basketball. The Terps made a furious rally in the last two minutes against Indiana in Assembly Hall to squeak out that victory. They are another contender that hasn't dropped a home game yet. Jalen Smith has been near-unstoppable in Big Ten play with five KenPom MVPs in Maryland's last six games.

Rutgers and Iowa have racked up some quality wins at home, but they're behind the top three until they beat anyone other than Nebraska or Northwestern on the road. They both have five difficult road games remaining, and they are already a game behind in the loss column. I think Iowa has a stronger team and thus a better shot, but these teams will need to steal one away from home before we can group them with the top three. 

Penn State and Wisconsin are the only other contenders right now, but both teams have shown they can make up ground on the road. The Badgers picked up a huge victory in the face of adversity by defeating Michigan State. This came after a tumultuous week for the program when Kobe King surprisingly transferred and Brad Davison got suspended. Penn State's won four games in a row, and they still have opportunities against four of the five teams ahead of them in the current standings. They will also hold the tiebreaker over Maryland with a head-to-head victory from December. 

Per Bart Torvik's T-Rank, Penn State has just a 3.5% chance at winning the Big Ten regular season crown outright and a 10.6% shot at sharing the title. More importantly, the system also gives the Lions a 52.5% chance of finishing in the top four and earning a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament.

There's a lot of basketball to be played, but the opportunity is clearly there. If the last two seasons showed any trend, it's that these Lions play their best basketball under Pat Chambers in February. A similar finish like last year's 7-3 run after an 0-10 start would keep PSU in the hunt. 

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