Well, here we go.
This basketball season has truly been a roller coaster ride for Penn State. Twice, the Nittany Lions were left for dead after devastating losses to Maine on Dec. 21 and Michigan State on Feb. 10, but thanks to some tough play since the latter of those, Penn State is still breathing and still has a chance to earn an at-large selection in the NCAA Tournament with three games to play.
There will be no surprises in any of the remaining contests, as the Lions have faced all three opponents already. On Jan. 15 they lost to then-No. 2 Ohio State 69-66 in Columbus after leading late in the game and playing with the mighty Buckeyes the whole way. On Feb. 13, they defeated Northwestern 65-41 at the Bryce Jordan Center, dominating much of the game. And on Feb. 17, they earned a crucial 66-63 win against Minnesota, also at home, as Talor Battle drilled a late triple to give Penn State a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
Because 18 overall wins is likely the magic number for an at-large berth with Penn State's No. 60 RPI and No. 6 strength of schedule, the task is pretty simple. If the Lions win one of the remaining three games, they'll likely have to win out in Indianapolis at the Big Ten Tournament to steal a bid. If they win two, they'll likely need to take a pair in the tournament, something very doable, especially if the Lions earn a No. 6 seed or less. If they win all three, well, then they'll likely only need to win their first game to be relatively safe.
Of course, all of this is subject to change if chaos ensues nationally. There's no telling what might happen if a few mid-majors steal bids and pull upsets in their conference tournament. But if everything goes according to plan, 18 wins and .500 in Big Ten play is likely a reasonable threshold for Penn State to be shooting for.
Here's an early scouting report on all three games.
Penn State will open its stretch run Thursday in Evanston against the Wildcats.
In Happy Valley, Penn State cruised to victory thanks to some tough perimeter defense. The Lions held Norhtwestern to 2-21 shooting from 3-point territory, helping them restrict the 'cats to a season-low 41 points and just their third point total under 60 for the entire year. Four Lions registered double figures and Penn State worked Northwestern on the boards by a 31-20 margin.
If Penn State hopes to walk away with a road win in this one, forcing another cold shooting night would be a good start. Northwestern figures to be much better from the perimeter at home, but if the Lions can hold the 'cats to a reasonable pace, they'll likely be OK. Northwestern isn't very strong defensively and Penn State has much better rebounders not only at forward, but at the guard spots too.
Ohio State-Mar. 1
Penn State didn't get a very good draw with its conference schedule this year, getting games against lowly Iowa and Indiana only once each and facing five ranked opponents in a row at one point, but they finally get a break leading into the Ohio State game. After Thursday, the Lions will have an entire week to prepare for the Buckeyes, something that should definitely help them in facing the No. 3 team in the land.
The Lions played one of their best games of the season in Columbus as four players racked up double figures and the team shot 55.6% from the field. Penn State also worked Ohio State 25-15 on the boards. A 4-17 3-point shoting performance slowed things down, though, and the Lions let Jared Sullinger take over in the final minute, ceding two and-one plays to the stellar freshman as time wound down to allow the Buckeyes to hold on.
Keeping Sullinger from making big plays will be very important in this second go-round. He will get his points and be a difference maker, but the Lions need to do a better job of defending him at crunch time. They also need to play better perimeter defense as they gave up 10-20 shooting from the arc in the first matchup, including 4-6 shooting from deep to guard Aaron Craft, normally a 6.9 point per game scorer who exploded for 19 against Penn State.
The first half of the Minnesota game at the Jordan Center might have been one of the more remarkable performances of the season for the Lions. The team was outrebounded 22-11 and was missing starters Jeff Brooks and Andrew Jones for much of the frame. The big Golden Gophers pretty much had run of the lane for most of the period and Penn State still managed to take a 29-28 lead into the half, battling hard in the second half to hold on for the win.
This time, guys like Brooks and Jones need to be careful so that they can stay on the floor for more minutes. Early foul trouble on the road could be killer. Without Devoe Joseph and Al Nolen, the Gophers are a shell of themselves on the outside, so the priority should be on tough, responsible defense inside for 40 minutes. The rest should take care of itself.
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