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Analyzing Penn State’s Non-Conference Schedule, Part 1: How We Got Here

The Penn State Basketball program recently released their non-conference schedule for the upcoming season. Here are some of the takeaways.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament-Michigan State vs Penn State Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The release of Penn State’s non-conference schedule not too long ago drew the ire of fans far and wide. The schedule includes a number of teams that were downright terrible last season, and are not likely to make a substantial jump in one year.

It’s blatantly obvious that this is not a good schedule. With only two top-100 teams from last season’s Kenpom/RPI rankings on the slate, this is by far the worst non-conference schedule Chambers has put together as the Nittany Lions coach. Penn State will not be building its resume on its non-conference slate. They are, however, very likely to come out of the non-conference with at least 10 wins, and could probably even match their 12-1 record from the 2014-15 season if all goes well.

There are a few theories as to why the schedule looks as bad as it does. Here are the three I think are most likely to be true, in order:

The Big Ten screwed everything up

First, and foremost, I think the reason the schedule is this horrible is because of the Big Ten. As discussed in the past, the Big Ten decided to host its postseason Tournament in Madison Square Garden this season. Only problem with that is that the Big East normally hosts its postseason tournament in Madison Square Garden. Therefore, the Big Ten adjusted its conference schedule to allow the tournament to be played a week earlier to accommodate both conferences.

This likely set up a ripple effect all over the conference. With a full week’s worth of games unavailable to teams right in the middle of the non conference period, scheduling may have become tricky for many teams. This is especially true for schools like Penn State, which are limited in options to begin with. When you consider that several dates were already set in stone in the form of the Legends Classic and its accompanying payout games, as well as the two return games against the Georges, finals week, and the holiday break, you’re left with about two weeks’ worth of time to fit the rest of the games in. It’s very possible that many of the better teams the AD could have scheduled were either not available or not willing to come up to the Bryce Jordan Center on the dates they did have. Also, with the Lions once again being absent from the Gavitt Tipoff Games, they missed out on adding a likely top-150 opponent from the Big East for free. Since those games happen at the beginning of the season, they’re a good way to replace the usual sacrifice with something of better quality.

If Penn State was unable to get something going with many teams due to this limitation, it’s understandable. No self-respecting team is going to agree to a road game at an empty Bryce Jordan right before New Year’s. After all, some of these top-150 teams on the discussion would be viewing this game as a potential win. They’d want to make sure they got a favorable date themselves.

As it stands today, Penn State will play NC State on the road, will likely play one of two Big Ten games on the road, then welcome George Washington to Bryce Jordan, a team that beat Penn State two seasons ago.* If the Lions draw the short end of the stick, they could end up with three straight road games by playing at NC State then playing two Big Ten road games. This means that a non-tournament neutral site game —like last year’s Never Forget Classic, usually taking place around the same time, was essentially out of the table. You could potentially play four straight games away from Bryce Jordan in a worst-case scenario. They tried that formula in 2015-16 and it didn’t work that well.

All that said, I do think Penn State could have found at least one decent opponent to replace any of the lower teams on the schedule. However, I think it proved nearly impossible to place appealing teams in all spots. Case in point, Ohio State just released their non-conference slate as well. A cursory look will quickly reveal the same issues you see with the Nittany Lions’ schedule. Outside of the required games (i.e. Big Ten/ACC Challenge, PK80 Invitational, and CBSSports Classic), the Buckeyes play no road games. And, every home game except for Clemson (Big Ten/ACC Challenge) is against a mid- or low-major. In fairness to the Buckeyes, they drew Gonzaga, North Carolina, and one of Florida or Stanford as their neutral site games, but you can still see that they likely faced the same challenges Penn State did. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were the recurring theme with teams that finished in the bottom half of the Big Ten, plus Northwestern.

Chambers wants to get over the hump

The second reason for the schedule could be a simple matter of wins. For the past three years, Penn State has been a few wins here and there from at least making the NIT. They’ve also hovered around the 16-win mark for the past four years, which gives people the sense that the program is stagnant regardless of play on the court. The last time they had a schedule devoid of any marquee opponents, the Nittany Lions were able to win 18 games even though they went 4-14 in conference play. Imagine what could happen if they replicate that out of conference success and win eight or nine Big Ten games to match?

It’s also possible that, having seen his team go 8-5 in the non-conference slate last season left a bitter taste in Chamber’s mouth. Teams that were supposed to be pushovers turned out to be pretty good, with George Mason and Georgia Tech doing a lot better than their projections. Allowing a team full of experienced, but still young talent the chance to build some confidence by winning games early could pay dividends later on in conference play.

Problem is, of course, if Chambers has a repeat of 2014-15, the soft non-conference slate will be for naught. Not to mention, as Northwestern showed us two seasons ago, 20 wins isn’t enough to get you into the NIT anymore. The team will have to do more. They’re going to need to do well in the non conference and in conference play.

Chambers knows something we don’t

As mentioned above, some teams last season ended up being a lot better than we thought they would be. While Pitt fell off a cliff (couldn’t have happened to a better team), several other teams picked up the RPI slack by performing well above expectations. Is it possible that Chambers knows some of these terrible teams won’t be as terrible this upcoming season? It is summer, after all, and many of these teams return a good amount of production from last season. More on that in a later post.

Also, for as bad as this schedule looks right now, we still don’t know what kind of draw the Lions are going to get from the Big Ten. Let’s say they get Michigan State, Minnesota, Purdue, Northwestern, and Maryland twice. That draw would be brutal, and could end up completely making up for the non-conference if Penn State is able to navigate through it.

Lastly, there is one source of information that may prove useful for coaches. Kenpom rankings aren’t out publicly for 2017-18 yet. Ken, however, does provide this data to coaches before making it available to the public. Could Chambers have gotten his hands on this data beforehand? You never know.

And there you have it. Schedule is nothing to write home about, but if Ohio State is any indication, you can rest assured Penn State won’t be the only team facing this conundrum this season.

*They are projected to be worse this season, but still.