It's been said many times that Jake Kelly killed Penn State's NCAA Tournament dreams in 2009. His bank shot three-pointer in double overtime of Iowa's 75-67 win against Penn State in last March's regular season finale is largely seen as the biggest reason that the Nittany Lions' bubble was burst on Selection Sunday, and symbolically, that might be true.
The truth of the matter, however, is that despite that loss, Penn State's at-large NCAA bid was still seen as safe (barely) by top analysts at the time. It wasn't until Mississppi State and USC pulled a string of upsets to win their conference tournaments that Penn State's bid was stolen, and left the Lions on the outside looking in.
So....let's be the ones that ruin someone's day this this time shall we?
Penn State will play Minnesota in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday in Indianapolis as the 11th seed in bracket.
In the bracket.
But if the team's play over the last couple of weeks is any indication, the Lions are hardly the 11th best team in the tournament. Since opening 0-12, Penn State is 3-3, with all three losses coming to the conference tri-champions, Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue, by a combined 14 points.
Chances are, even if the Lions manage to overcome the Golden Gophers Friday, their season will end against
Purdue Michigan State on Friday. But unlike other seasons, including 2009, this team is peaking at exactly the right time to make some noise, and reign down some Madness on the Big Ten.
For Penn State
1. Jeff Brooks and Andrew Jones-Both forwards are coming to the end of inconsistent seasons for Penn State. When the pair struggled in the early portions of the Big Ten schedule, so did the team. Since then, however, they've gone on to become the cogs driving Penn State's recent success. For the last month or so, these guys have been playing with little to no pressure in games that have largely been meaningless for their team. But Thursday, there's more on the line than pride, there'sa tournament championship and NCAA tournament berth. Granted, given Penn State's underdog status, you might expect that the two will play with nothing to lose anyway, but remember, they have everything to gain for next year in this tournament, and that might put them under as much pressure as they've seen in a while. How will they respond?
2. Familiarity-Though Penn State will be facing the toughest teams the league has to offer in Michigan State and likely Purdue and Ohio State if it advances past Minnesota, the Lions are familiar with what those teams are doing right now having faced all three since Feb. 24,, and that can only help their chances in Indy. Beating all three of those teams in three days will be tough, but not as tough as heading into the games having not played them for a while.
3. Effort-It's been the staple of this year's team, and no matter what happens in the next couple of days, if the Lions play hard and determined they'll sow a lot of good feelings about the themselves heading into 2010-2011.
4. Fluidity on Offense-If offensive efficiency was a KINES course, the Lions slept through the midterm and now have to ace the final to pass. During the early to middle portions of the Big Ten season, the Penn State offense consisted mostly of tossing the rock around the perimeter for 30 seconds before clearing out the lane for Talor Battle to attack the rim with the clock winding down. Not surprisingly, it didn't work. But in the last couple of weeks, the passes have become more crisp and decisive and the distribution of the scoring load has been text book, mostly because the Lions are moving around when they have the ball and creating opportunties. Penn State might shoot 20% against Minnesota, but if they do so making the right passes and taking the right shots, it'll still be an encouraging sign for next year.
5. Signature win(s)-Penn State has begun to make a habit of toppling at least one big name opponent in the last few years. In 2006 in was Illinois, in 2008 it was Michigan St. and Indiana, and in 2009 it was Michigan St. and Illinois again. The Lions don't have that win yet this year, and while chances may be slim of pulling one off in Indianapolis, the possibility exists. Can Penn State get 2010's before it's too late?
Around the Big Ten
1. War at the Top-The three tri-champions all have considerable chances of pulling this tournament out, and this is the final act in theirseason long drama. Someone has to win, and someone has to lose. Which team is going to make plays and assume the undisputed post-season crown of the league? For my money it'll be Ohio State, but you never know this time of year.
2. The Beginning of the Exodus-This tournament will mark one of your last chances to see some familiar faces before they move on via graduation or to the professional ranks. Seniors like Keaton Grant, Chris Kramer, DeShawn Sims, Raymar Morgan, Lawrence Westbrook, Jason Bohannon, and Trevon Hughes will all be bowing out of the Big Ten spotlight, and underclassmen such as Demetri McCamey, Evan Turner, Kalin Lucas, and Manny Harris might start testing the pro waters for possible early jumps to the NBA. The conference might not assemble star power like this again for a long time, so if and when Penn State exits, try to keep an eye on the other games.
3. Bubble Teams-Minnesota and Illinois are both skating on thin ice entering this weekend, and will be desperate for some late headline wins to impress the selection committee before Sunday.
4. Boilermaker Pride-Penn State's opponent in round three will be Purdue if it beats the Gophers Thursday and Spartans Friday. The Fightin' Keadys have played well without Robbie Hummel and improbably held on through the final few games, clinching their share of the title Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center. Can they keep the momentum going?
5. Evan Turner-Sure, he wears scarlett and gray, but he's a phenomenal blend of size and athleticism that doesn't come around often. He's worth the price of admission and then some. This will be your last chance to see him play before he disappears into obscurity with the Nets or Timberwolves next winter, so enjoy him while you can.