Penn State basketball fans faced what was an unfamiliar situation after Tuesday’s 62-56 loss to Illinois at the Bryce Jordan Center. Not only did it end the Nittany Lions' eight-game winning streak, but it was a loss in the first game after the team achieved its No. 9 ranking, which tied an all-time program high.
The loss was a frustrating one as Penn State shot only 36.2% from the field and 21.1% from three. On another night, the Lions may have been able to survive such a performance, but Ayo Dosunmu made sure that the Illini were able to take advantage by mustering up a superstar performance while coming off of an injury. Despite all of that, the reality is that with the season Penn State is having, this loss is nothing to worry about.
Penn State wasn't eliminated from Big Ten contention and wasn't eliminated from NCAA Tournament contention. Yes, its Big Ten regular-season title hopes took a hit as Penn State is now 2 games back of Maryland for first place in the Big Ten with only five games to go.
However, Penn State still remains in second place in the conference standings at 10-5, holding a one-game lead over Iowa, Michigan State, Illinois, and Wisconsin. As long as the Lions are able to finish the regular season strongly and remain among the top-four, they will still earn the all-important double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
Fortunately, they have a favorable schedule going forward. Penn State plays Rutgers and Michigan State at home, and Indiana, Iowa and Northwestern on the road in its five games left this regular season. Iowa will unquestionably be an extremely tough game, but that was the case when the Nittany Lions played at Michigan, at Michigan State, and at Purdue, all which ended up being wins. The Spartans will be looking for revenge, Indiana a chance to prove not all hope is lost, Rutgers a last-ditch plea to the bracket gods, and Northwestern a reason to be excited for next year. If the Lions can stick with what's worked so far, though, this team has a great chance at four wins or more over the final five.
The other four games are ones that Penn State should have a great chance to win.
Furthermore, it's important to remember that Myreon Jones, Penn State's second-leading scorer and leader in 3-point FG% in the Big Ten, missed Tuesday's game vs. Illinois as well as the three games prior to that. Once Jones gets back in the lineup, Penn State will have a reliable second scorer next to Lamar Stevens.
Penn State played its worst possible game on Tuesday night, didn't have Jones, and still could have won the game had they made one more defensive stop or gotten one more defensive rebound. It's not the end of the world to lose one game to a team that spent most of the year inside the top-25 when your record is 20-6.
In fact, ESPN's Joe Lunardi released his updated bracket on Thursday morning and had Penn State as a 3-seed, just as he did prior to Tuesday's loss.
It's important to remember that this team is still one of the best in the Big Ten, and primed to make a deep run into March. That hasn't changed.
Penn State's first opportunity to bounce back will be on Sunday as the Nittany Lions head to Bloomington to take on Indiana at 12 p.m. ET.