Column: Breaking Down Penn State’s Tournament Chances

Story posted December 31, 2013 in Sports, CommRadio by Bradford Conners

There is little doubt that if the Nittany Lions continue to play the way they did throughout the nonconference season, their hopes of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday are essentially nonexistent, and an NIT berth may be unlikely as well.

Pat Chambers’ squad showed some flashes of being NCAA Tournament-worthy, but it couldn’t sustain a high level of play on a consistent basis. A blown 20-point lead against Princeton was the lowlight of the nonconference slate, and a double-digit loss to Bucknell and a narrow escape against Mount Saint Mary’s simply doesn’t bode well for a sure-to-be grueling Big Ten season.

That being said, for the first time in three years, Penn State will go into conference play in 2014 with at least some chance of being a tournament team.

D.J. Newbill is leading the Big Ten in scoring with 18.9 points per game on 51 percent shooting---an impressive percentage for a guard---and Tim Frazier is not only third in the conference with 18.2 points per contest, but leads the Big Ten in assists by an enormous margin. Frazier is averaging 7.5 dimes per game, and the next-best is Minnesota’s DeAndre Mathieu with just 4.8 assists per game.

Add in John Johnson, who had a brilliantly efficient debut last Sunday with a team-high 20 points on 8-for-11 shooting in just 22 minutes of action, and Penn State seems to have the talent to make some noise in the Big Ten. Plus, nearly all of Johnson’s scoring against Mount Saint Mary’s came on isolation plays; if he can start working in-sync with Frazier and Newbill once they have more live-game experience playing with each other, the Nittany Lions could quickly become very dangerous.

So even though Penn State has the best backcourt in the Big Ten---and possibly the country---and it has the potential to keep getting better, the Nittany Lions certainly have their work cut out for them if they want to get anywhere near the bubble conversation. It’s early, but their computer numbers are very shaky, as Penn State currently checks in with a No. 104 RPI ranking and a No. 154 strength of schedule rating.

Thus far, the Nittany Lions are 1-4 against the RPI Top 100 and 8-0 against teams outside of the Top 100. In other words, they’ve won all of their “easy” games, but they’ve come up short in their challenging games, aside from the overtime win against St. John’s.

The good news, though, is that playing in the Big Ten, Penn State will get plenty of difficult, yet winnable games that could really boost their resume if they can pull off the upset. For example, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan State are all ranked in the AP Top 5, but have looked

vulnerable at times against inferior opponents, and the Nittany Lions get a shot at all three of them on their home floor.

Historically, it has been difficult for teams with 13 regular season losses to make it to March Madness. However, since Penn State has a chance at some quality wins, a 9-9 record in a tough Big Ten (and an 18-13 record overall) would probably be enough to at least garner some at-large consideration heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Then, a pair of wins in Indianapolis could potentially put the Nittany Lions into the Big Dance.

I don’t think it’s particularly likely that Penn State finishes .500 in arguably the toughest conference in the nation, but it is at least possible. Below, I break the Nittany Lions’ Big Ten schedule into chunks and say what I think they need to do in each segment to finish .500 in league play and put themselves onto the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Games 1-4: vs. No. 5 Michigan State, @ Illinois, vs. Minnesota, vs. Indiana

Though an 0-2 start in Big Ten play certainly wouldn’t be ideal, a win in either of those first two games will be hard to come by. However, Penn State needs to be able to defend its home court against two teams that may be on the bubble come season’s end and knock off the Gophers and Hoosiers.

Games 5-6: @ Michigan, @ Purdue

The Nittany Lions will be an underdog in both of these games, and their 1-17 combined road record in the last two Big Ten seasons won’t suffice, if they want to be playing meaningful basketball in March. Both of these teams are solid but not elite, and Penn State needs to steal one road win out of these two games.

Games 7-10: vs. Nebraska, @ No. 3 Ohio State, vs. Purdue, @ No. 5 Michigan State

Penn State needs to take care of business at home against Nebraska and Purdue, as a win in either Columbus or East Lansing would be highly unlikely.

Games 11-12: vs. Illinois, @ Indiana

The Illini looked good in nonconference play, but they’ve been known for mid-season collapses in recent years, so the Nittany Lions will hope to catch them at the right time and pick up a home win. If not, they’ll need to gut out a win in Indiana to make up for it.

Games 13-14: vs. No. 22 Iowa, @ Nebraska

These two games could make or break Penn State’s season, as the Nittany Lions could certainly win both to gain momentum late in the year or could easily lose both to fall out of contention. A split would be a reasonable goal, however.

Games 15-16: vs. No. 3 Ohio State, vs. No. 4 Wisconsin

This is another make-or-break stretch for the Nittany Lions. These are two elite teams, but Penn State should be playing up to its potential at this point in the season. Signature wins this late in the year will stick in the minds of the selection committee, and Penn State needs a court- storming victory in at least one of them to keep its March Madness hopes alive.

Games 17-18: @ Northwestern, @ Minnesota

There’s no such thing as an easy road game in the Big Ten, but a visit to Northwestern is about as close as you can get to one. The Nittany Lions will need to win that game, and a victory in The Barn would be a great way to finish off the regular season, but it probably isn’t too likely.

Bradford Conners is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email btc5082@psu.edu.