Penn State's Path to March Madness

By Brad Peterson on February 8, 2021 at 10:38 am
Penn State guard Myles Dread
Matthew O'Haren- USA TODAY Sports
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With the Nittany Lions’ win over Maryland, Penn State is very much in the bubble conversation for the NCAA Tournament. How, you may wonder? This is a team that has a losing record and started 0-5 in league play.

The recent conference wins over Rutgers, Northwestern, Wisconsin and Maryland have given PSU the opportunity to control their own destiny. While the game with the Terps was definitely not a thing of beauty, the win propels PSU past Maryland in the tournament selection discussion and into the top-30 of the NCAA’s NET ranking at #28.

While the team still sits at 7-8 overall and 4-7 in B1G play, they are 4-2 in the conference after that 0-5 start and the computer metrics love Penn State. In addition to the NET ranking, stats guru Ken Pomeroy has Penn State at #30, the Lions come in at #36 in Jeff Sagarin’s rating and ESPN’s BPI has PSU at #48. The one that matters most is the NET as that is the tool the NCAA tournament selection committee uses when picking the field. For comparison, the next highest ranked team in the NET with a losing record is Notre Dame (7-10) at #72. In addition, Pomeroy has PSU with the toughest strength of schedule (SOS) in the entire NCAA. Only the buy game with VMI, who comes in at #153 in the NCAA’s NET ranking, is keeping the Nittany Lions from running away with the SOS lead. Non-conference wins over VCU (#41 NET) and at Virginia Tech (#35 NET) and the wins over conference foes Wisconsin (#16 NET) and Rutgers (#25 NET), with no bad losses, add up to Penn State’s high rating.

Currently, none of the bracketologists have Penn State on the right side of the bubble, but ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has Penn State as his fourth team out out in his latest bracket projection. As the wins keep coming, the Lions will keep climbing. So how do they make it to the right side of the bubble? There are potentially nine B1G games left and I believe eight total league wins may get the Nittany Lions an at-large bid, nine would nearly be a lock. A win in the conference tournament would be a huge plus, if there is a conference tournament. That is a discussion for another day.

Remaining schedule

  • Feb. 9 at Michigan State

Michigan State is floundering this year. Much like Maryland, who Penn State just dispatched, the Spartans are struggling without last year’s leaders, Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman. This is the program the Lions have had the least success against in conference, just 9-38 all-time against Sparty, but this isn’t a typical Izzo team and the Breslin Center won’t be rocking. This is a game the Lions can win on the road.

  • Feb. 14 vs. Nebraska

Nebraska is by far the worst team in the league at 3-8, 0-5, #163 NET. Penn State can’t lose this game at home. Period.

  • Feb. 18 vs. Ohio State

The Lions were up 70-62 late in the second half in Columbus only to give up the lead late and lose 83-79. It would have been huge to take down the Buckeyes on their home court, but it wasn’t to be. Chris Holtman has Ohio State playing very well and while the Lions have been tough at home, I see the Buckeyes pulling this one out on the road.

  • Feb. 21 at Iowa

This will be a heavy lift. It should be a fun game to watch as both teams want to get up and down the floor. I don’t expect the slugfest that occurred at the Palestra last year, but it may be tighter than people think. I do expect the Hawkeyes juggernaut to come out on top.

  • Feb. 26 vs. Purdue

Penn State lost to the Boilers 80-72 in their first game back after the COVID pause. The Lions got off to a very cold start and Purdue used an 18-5 run to start the second half to open a 14-point lead. Despite the outcome of the game at Mackey, with John Harrar now playing each game in beast mode, I think he can help neutralize Purdue's inside strength and PSU can win the rematch at home.

  • March 3 vs. Minnesota

The Gophers come to the BJC as the calendar flips to March. Marcus Carr and Liam Robbins will present a major challenge, and Richard Pitino’s team will be fighting for an NCAA bid as well, but the Lions will once again defend the home court and take the victory.

  • March 7 at Maryland

A win at College Park may lock up a bid for PSU as it would be win number nine in B1G play. As with Minnesota, the Terps will be fighting for their NCAA tournament lives and will want revenge for the loss at the BJC. The home team has historically held serve in this series and Maryland will take the W at home, in a game that may be more aesthetically pleasing than the Lions’ 55-50 win.

If this all happens, and that is a big IF, Penn State would be 8-10 in B1G play and 11-11 overall. Missing from this is a game with Michigan that has been postponed twice, and a postponed road date at Nebraska. At this point there has been no indication those games will be re-scheduled. If they are, it gives PSU a few more opportunities for a big win, but the Wolverines are a talented team that will be tough at the Jordan Center. Penn State really may have been able to steal a win at Crisler Arena if not for a missed goaltending call late in the 62-58 loss on Dec. 13 so a win at home isn't out of the question. If the roadie at Nebraska is rescheduled, that would be another must-win for the Lions.

The Lions have lost four games when leading with three minutes to play and have blown big leads against both Seton Hall and Illinois. If even two of those games had gone to the blue and white, we’d be having a very different bubble conversation. Even being in the conversation, after last year’s regular season success and then the disappointment of having the tournament cancelled,  and then the abrupt resignation of Coach Chambers, feels good. The Lions look like a tournament team and their metrics are strong. If the wins follow, the team will be dancing on March 14, Selection Sunday.

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