March is arguably the greatest time to be a fan of college sports. Every year, no matter how awful Penn State basketball has proven to be, I'm able to convince myself that if we can just catch lightening in a bottle in the Big Ten Tournament, we can dance. And even if Penn State doesn't win the tournament or qualify for the field of
64 68, there's still a chance that the Nittany Lions can win once against a beatable opponent, then get lucky in the quarterfinals, and I can feel part of it and share the exuberance of Springtime hope.
But nearly every year the Nittany Lions disappoint me. Since the Big Ten Tournament's inception in 1998, Penn State is one of only three teams to have never won the automatic bid, with Northwestern and Indiana (surprisingly) as the others. (Technically, Michigan has never won the tournament either, because they vacated their records from the 1997-98 season, including their Big Ten Tourney win, due to NCAA sanctions.) Penn State is 6-13 in the history of the Big Ten Tourney, never having received a seed of 5 or higher, and so never having avoided the first round. In the 13 Big Ten Tournaments that have been played, Penn State has advanced to the quarterfinals only four times, the semifinals only twice, and never made it to the final game.
As the sixth seed this year, Penn State plays in the 6-11 game on Thursday, a game in which they have plenty of experience. In fact, they've played in that game 7 times with a record of...wait for it...1-6. The good news is that the sixth seed has won in each of those seven matches. In fact, the 6th seed has only lost in the first round of the tournament once, in 1999, when #11 Illinois beat #6 Minnesota. Iowa even won the whole tournament as the #6 seed in 2001, when they beat the 7th seed Nittany Lions in the semifinals. That lose to Iowa in 2001 ended Penn State's two-year streak of success in the tournament.
In 2000, as a 9 seed, the Nittany Lions dispatched 8th-ranked Michigan in the first round and #1-ranked Ohio State in the quarterfinals (by 15!) before losing to #4 Illinois in the semis. Both Jarret Stephens and Joe Crispin made the all-tournament team. In 2001, when Crispin made the all-tournament team again, 7th-ranked Penn State again beat Michigan in the first round, then beat 2nd-ranked Michigan State in the quarterfinals before failing to Iowa in the semi's. Despite their upset loss to Penn State in March that year, Sparty still got a #1 seed in the field of 64 and made it to the Final Four where they lost to Arizona. Penn State certainly was a giant-killer that year, because, as I hope you remember, after beating Providence in the first round, 10th-ranked PSU defeated the University of North Carolina in the second-round of the Big Dance in what was arguably the biggest victory in modern PSU basketball history.
Indeed, 2001 was something special. The "riots" that broke out in State College after Penn State lost to Temple in the Sweet Sixteen were little more than a bunch of zealous young Turks drunk on the glory of March and college sports fandom. First-hand reports from the riots suggest that several students were maced by Borough policemen but able to quickly "walk it off" because they were so high on drugs and March Madness.
Those that experienced 2001 will never be satisfied with a deep run into the NIT because it's just Not Important. At this point, we have vague notions of what Penn State might need to do to don Cinderella's slipper, but we know that a run into the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament is likely a prerequisite. Let's hope that recent history is no guide to what will happen in the Big Ten Tournament this year and let's let the Madness begin.