After one of the most exciting stretches in recent program history, coach Patrick Chambers and the Penn State men’s basketball team have seemingly cooled off after back to back losses versus ranked opponents.
Less than one month ago in early February, the Nittany Lions found themselves solidly in the lower half of the Big Ten standings. They had beaten then-ranked no. 13 Ohio State with one of the most entertaining finishes in program history (In case you missed it: Click Here ). Besides that win, the resume wasn’t there. They lost to Rider at home and crawled through an ugly 1-4 stretch in conference play while junior guard Josh Reaves sat the bench with academic issues. While everyone was belting “Fire Pat Chambers”, nobody even bothered to think this team could make the NCAA Tournament.
Then things changed.
Penn State was reinvigorated by the return of Reaves. They took care of business vs Rutgers, dropped a so-so game against Sparty, and then pieced together four-straight vs Iowa, Maryland, Illinois, and another win over no. 8 Ohio State. Suddenly 13-8 turned into 19-9 and a tournament resume wasn’t quite there, but it was in the making and opportunity lay sprawled across the horizon.
With three games left in their regular season Penn State had a tough game at no. 6 Purdue looming, and contests vs no. 17 Michigan and Nebraska to follow. The chances to pad a resume were there. Nobody expected Penn State to go 3-0, but some thought 2-1 would be good enough to get them into the big dance for the first time since Taylor Battle led them there in 2011.
Purdue was tough. Tony Carr did his thing and finished with 19-5-5, Shep Garner went 5-8 from deep, and the Nittany Lions actually got some scoring help off the bench (not common for this team) from the likes of Julian Moore and Nazeer Bostick. Penn State did what they could, shooting 50% from the field but Purdue just outplayed them.
Purdue wins 79-73, 2 games left.
Next was Michigan and there was no way Penn State could lose this one, right? The curtains were up and the BJC was rocking and you start to think, “Yeah these guys got it”. And then 5 minutes into the game Mike Watkins goes down, the Nittany Lions never had their legs under them. Michigan would pull away, Penn State would claw their way back. A late three from Carr made it interesting but the energy just wasn’t there.
Michigan wins 72-63, 1 game left.
Today Penn State sits at 19-11 and they have one game left against Nebraska. The last time these two met up the Nittany Lions won it in overtime. This one is honestly a toss-up but Penn State is in must-win territory. Let’s say they get the win and move into the Big Ten Tournament. As it stands, Penn State is predicted to finish as the fourth team left out of the 68 NCAA tournament field. What do they have to do to get in?
It’s simple in my opinion, but it ain’t easy. They have to beat Nebraska, and they have to get to the Big Ten Tournament final. Projections say that Penn State will get Northwestern in the opening round. The Wildcats bested the Nittany Lions early in the season but Penn State is a different team at this point in the year. Win. Next they’ve got a game against the 2 seed. That’s right, Ohio State. The team Penn State has gone 2-0 against this year, including a dominating win at the Jordan Center. I won’t even try to guess what happens in this one. We will just have to wait and see.
Penn State fans, you’ve just read the long answer to the question but here is the short one: Does a path to the NCAA tournament still exist for Penn State. Yes. Will the Nittany Lions go dancing, in my opinion, no. Penn State missed out on their chance to pad their resume in the regular season and now they have no choice but to do it in the Big Ten Tournament and I just don’t think they have what it takes to make a Big Ten finals run. That being said, they do have one of the most talented starting 5’s in the nation…this is going to get interesting.
Penn State plays at Nebraska this Sunday. The game tips off 5:15 ET and you can watch on BTN.
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