Column: Penn State’s NCAA Tournament Outlook

posted December 30, 2014 in Sports, CommRadio by Bradford Conners

Perhaps the Penn State Nittany Lions didn’t quite have the look of an NCAA tournament-caliber team throughout the majority of the nonconference season. However, despite some close calls against the likes of Cornell, USC, Virginia Tech, and Duquesne, Pat Chambers’ squad was able to escape the nonconference portion of its schedule with an impressive-looking 12-1 record.

Given that this Penn State team still has quite a few holes---the biggest being the lack of an inside scoring presence---and with a slew of much more challenging match-ups on the horizon, it won’t be easy for the Nittany Lions to make it into the Big Dance. That being said, with the position that they’ve put themselves in heading into the Big Ten season, it’s certainly better than a long shot that they hear their name called on Selection Sunday, and is at least worth discussing.

Before I examine what Penn State would have to accomplish during conference play in order to snag an at-large bid, let’s evaluate how its resume looks at the moment.

Nonconference Analysis

Penn State’s RPI currently sits at No. 41, and typically, a team from a power conference in that range would get a double-digit seed in the tourney. So for right now, it’s a good spot for the Nittany Lions to be in, but with the important part of the schedule still to come, RPI’s will change dramatically and aren’t worth getting too caught up in at the moment.

One figure that is significant and will hurt Penn State come Selection Sunday is that its strength of schedule currently sits at No. 192 out of 351 Division I teams. Obviously, this number will improve once Big Ten play begins, but nonconference SOS is something the selection committee looks at rather closely to see how much a team challenged itself, and clearly Penn State won’t pass that metric.

In fact, the Nittany Lions are the only team in the nation that has nine or more wins against teams ranked outside of the RPI Top 200. So, three-quarters of Penn State’s wins are against teams that are in the bottom half of Division I. For comparison, VCU and Kansas, who have the top two strength of schedule ranks in the country, haven’t played a team outside of the Top 200 all season.

On the bright side, playing so many games against inferior opponents could easily lead to a resume-killing loss, but that is something Penn State has avoided. Come tournament time, any loss to a team outside the RPI Top 100 is generally considered a bad loss, and the Nittany Lions are 11-0 in those games. Their lone loss was to Charlotte, whose RPI currently sits at No. 52---and that is not a bad “worst nonconference loss” to have.

Currently, though, the biggest jewel on Penn State’s tournament resume is its win over George Washington. And that win has only been looking better and better of late, as GW recently won the Diamond Head Classic, which included a big-time victory over No. 11 Wichita State. The Colonials’ RPI is currently No. 17, and though that will likely fall, it does look like the Nittany Lions will wind up with a signature nonconference win that will greatly aid their at-large chances.

Looking Ahead to Big Ten Play

By compiling a 12-1 record in nonconference games, Penn State put itself in a position where a 9-9 Big Ten record should be good enough to get into the tournament. That would put the Nittany Lions at 21-10 overall, and it seems unlikely that a team from the Big Ten with just ten regular season losses would be left out of March Madness---although they could probably use at least one win in the conference tournament to be safe.

There is no doubt that this year’s Big Ten is the weakest it has been in recent memory. Traditional powers Michigan and Michigan State are having down years, and there are more basement-dwellers than usual, as Rutgers, Northwestern, Purdue, and Nebraska all struggled in nonconference play.

However, this does not mean that Penn State will have an easier-than-usual Big Ten slate. There are five teams in the conference that the Nittany Lions play twice, and four of them---Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State, and Minnesota---are currently the highest ranked Big Ten teams in the Coaches Poll.

It may appear that the Nittany Lions caught a bad break by being dealt such difficult home-and-homes, but it could actually end up working in their favor. Penn State could really use the boost in its SOS rating after playing a slew of cupcake games in the nonconference, and a 9-9 conference record may not have impressed the committee quite so much if PSU had more games against the bottom feeders of the Big Ten.

Below, I break Penn State’s opponents into three tiers and provide a path for what the Nittany Lions would need to do in order to achieve a .500 conference record.

Games against bottom-tier teams:

Home: Rutgers, Nebraska, Purdue

Away: Rutgers, Northwestern

Right now, one of the best things that the Nittany Lions have going for them is their lack of a bad loss, yet that could quickly go by the wayside if they fall to one of these teams that appear destined for the bottom of the Big Ten standings. Given its bevy of tight games against inferior nonconference opponents, nothing has been automatic for Penn State this year, but the Nittany Lions really need to go 5-0 in these games.

Purdue and Nebraska are two teams that were expected to perform better than they have thus far, and perhaps they have the potential to turn things around, but since Penn State gets both of them at home, the Nittany Lions wouldn’t have much of an excuse to lose to either one of them. A visit to Northwestern looks to be the trickiest game of the group, but it’s a game the Nittany Lions need to be able to win if they want to make a run at a tournament berth.

Games against upper-tier teams:

Home: Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State

Away: Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State

Although things could certainly change, at this point in the season, there’s little doubt that these three teams appear to be the class of the Big Ten. This is a much thinner class of elite teams than the Big Ten is accustomed to, but again, the Nittany Lions will see plenty of them, as they face each one twice.

Bubble teams need that one signature win to hang their hat on, so Penn State needs to get at least one win out of these six games. A 2-4 record would be an added bonus, and it isn’t unrealistic considering that the Nittany Lions have been relatively competitive against Wisconsin at home in recent years, swept Ohio State last year, and Maryland doesn’t seem unbeatable. But for now, we’ll say Penn State goes 1-5 in these games.

Games against middle-tier teams:

Home: Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa

Away: Minnesota, Michigan State, Indiana, Illinois

This tier of games is what will make or break Penn State’s season. These match-ups will have huge implications because, more than likely, quite a few teams on this list will be on the tournament bubble, and Penn State could get a leg up on some of them with a head-to-head victory.

If the Nittany Lions follow the path I’ve created for them thus far, they’d be 6-5 and would need to go 3-4 in this group of games to reach a .500 record.

It seems unlikely that Penn State would win all three of these home games, so it would need to win at least one on the road. However, you’d have to figure that the Nittany Lions would be pretty significant underdogs in all four of these road contests.

So, the most probable path to going 3-4 in these games is to win two out of three at home and steal one on the road. This isn’t impossible, but I don’t think it’s terribly likely either.

Michigan is an underachieving team that does have talent, Iowa is a solid veteran squad, and Minnesota has dominated Penn State in recent years. East Lansing is a very difficult place to win, Illinois had no trouble with the Nittany Lions last year and has gotten better since, and Penn State did win at Indiana last year, but the Hoosiers are a vastly improved team.

Final Outlook

Therefore, realistically, I see Penn State going 2-5, and maybe even 1-6 in the games against middle-tier teams. I think getting one win against an upper-echelon team is very manageable, but I could also see the Nittany Lions having a slip-up against one of the bottom-tier teams.

A 7-11 Big Ten record would likely net Penn State an NIT berth, and that would certainly be nothing to be ashamed of and would be a nice step forward for this program. However, since the Nittany Lions did everything that could have been asked of them in nonconference play and appear to have been playing their best basketball over their past few games, there’s no reason not to aim high and strive for an NCAA tournament berth.

Because, to steal the line from the College Football Playoff commercials, yes---I’m saying there’s a chance. And that’s the first time since Talor Battle donned the blue and white that Penn State fans have been able to say that as the calendar turns and the true tests begin.

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