[This post comes from guest contributor Matt Pencek, who graciously offered to cover the Big Ten Men's Basketball Tournament for Black Shoe Diaries. He and his brother are also the authors of The Great Book of Penn State Sports Lists, available on Amazon. - C.G.]
The 15th Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament begins Thursday afternoon. As you know, Penn State has never won the thing. In fact, the only time they were cutting down the nets at the conclusion of a conference tournament was in 1991, defeating George Washington 81-75. That was for the Atlantic 10 title, the Lions’ final game in that league. It’s no secret that Pat Chambers’ team may be the longest shot to win this year’s tournament. Previously, there has been some good and a whole lot of bad when Penn State hits Championship Week. Here are three games from each of those categories.
3. 2000 Penn State 71, #4 Ohio State 66 - With nine losses in their previous 11 games, the Nits limped into the tournament needing two wins to guarantee the .500 record necessary to qualify for the N.I.T. (you’ll remember that famous slogan "you can’t spell Nittany without N I T"). Penn State took care of Step One by defeating Michigan 76-66 in the opening round. Up next were the #4 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. Jarrett Stephens was a man on a mission. With nearly every game having the potential to his last in a Penn State uniform, Stephens led the Lions in scoring with 21 points, grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds, and even contributed a 3 point bucket. The win gave Penn State a 15-14 record as they earned their first ever trip to the conference semifinals, where they lost to Illinois 94-84. Their .500 record was indeed good enough for an invite to the "little dance", which they parlayed that into a trip the Final Four at Madison Square Garden before losing to Notre Dame in the semis.
2. 2011 Penn State 61, Michigan State 48 - What the program failed to do in its only previous two trips to the semifinal round, this group accomplished. The win over the Spartans put the Nittany Lions into their first conference tournament championship game. It did not look good early as MSU jumped out to a 14-4 lead. The Lions rallied to tie the game 26-26 at the half. In the second half, Talor Battle added to his legend. The senior guard hit four consecutive 3-pointers in a 2:35 stretch as Penn State got the win that took them off the bubble and into the NCAA tournament for the first time in ten years. Speaking of which…
1. 2001 Penn State 65, #2 Michigan State 63 - A point of clarification, before we go further. I put this game as #1 even though this game occurred in the quarterfinals. Like the 2011 team, the 2001 squad entered the tournament as the ultimate bubble team. I would even argue that Battle and company needed all three of their conference tournament wins to get last year’s NCAA bid. If they had lost to Michigan State, I think there was a good chance the Lions would have been N.I.T. bound. My reasoning for putting this game in the top spot is that the game was in doubt until the final buzzer. More importantly, there was an aura of invincibility surrounding those Spartans. During Battle’s career, Penn State had won at East Lansing for the first time, and had beaten the Spartans twice in the Jordan Center. Back in 2001, it was Joe Crispin doing what Joe Crispin did best, shoot the ball from any and all open spots on the court. His off-balanced 3-pointer with 21 seconds remaining gave Penn State the lead for good. He later drained two free throws to clinch the victory that sent PSU to the NCAA tournament and an eventual run to the Sweet 16.
3. 1998 Wisconsin 52, Penn State 51 - The Nittany Lions were seeded 7th while the Badgers were 10th in the very first Big Ten Tournament. Penn State had a decent 15-11 record, but there was no talk of a potential run to make the NCAA tournament. The Badgers were 11-18 and a threat to do nothing. As you would expect with a one-point game, it was tight throughout. Penn State led at the half 25-24, and 51-50 in the closing seconds when Wisconsin’s Maurice Linton hit a 15-foot fadeaway jumper to end an 11 game losing streak for the Badgers. The Lions rebounded as they headed to the N.I.T. and advanced to their first championship game before losing to Minnesota.
2. 2006 #7 Ohio State 63, Penn State 56 - After defeating Northwestern in the opening round, a win that guaranteed N.I.T. eligibility, the Nittany Lions nearly pulled off a huge upset over the Buckeyes in the quarterfinals. In fact, they led nearly the entire game. PSU built a 42-30 second half lead only to see it whittled away. Jamar Butler’s 3-pointer gave OSU their first lead at 50-49 with just under six minutes to play.
1. 2009 #24 Purdue 79, Penn State 65 – As opposed to losing a nailbiter, the Lions were never in this game. It was a game Penn State badly needed to get off the bubble and solidify an invite to the NCAA Tournament. You don’t have to remember the Bruce Parkhill years, or even the Jerry Dunn years to recall this pain. The Nittany Lions lost in double overtime at Iowa in the final game of the regular season. A win there would have put PSU into a three-way tie for second place, a bye in the opening round, and a probable bid to the Big Dance. Instead, that loss dropped Penn State to 10-8 in the conference and a three-way tie for fourth place, but a sixth seed due to tie breakers.
Penn State was 21-10 overall and firmly on the bubble thanks in part to an extremely weak non-conference schedule. Yes, the Lions had defeated 3 ranked teams in conference play including the aforementioned first ever win at Michigan State and Talor Battle’s coast-to-coast game winner against Illinois. The memorable Illinois win late in the season was thought to have all but clinched the elusive NCAA bid. If it was in doubt, the 66-51 win over Indiana in the opening round was the probable clincher. It wasn’t, and with the Lions loss to the Boilermakers, head coach Ed DeChellis found himself all over ESPN’s wide range of networks on Sunday morning and afternoon talking about being on the bubble and pleading his case to the selection committee. Sadly, there was no NCAA bid for PSU, but the team fought its way to a rather nice consolation prize of an N.I.T. title at Madison Square Garden.