This is the season fans and critics alike have been waiting for. Pat Chambers will have the best roster he’s had since arriving in State College. Many people are looking for a reason to invest in Chambers for the future or move on. Yet to receive a long-term extension, Pat Cambers has two years remaining on his current contract, the results this season could prove to be critical.
Not making the NCAA tournament isn't a fatal blow to Chambers' tenure, but earning a spot in the field of 68 would all but guarantee a contract extension. Regardless of that situation, it's been 7 years since Penn state went dancing, and fans are eager to see the Nittany lions make a return trip. What will it take?
I'm not going to do a game-by-game breakdown. Instead I'll look at the season as a whole, compare with qualifiers from the past, and give a general sense of what needs to happen at a minimum level to earn a bid. Specifically I’ll be looking at Michigan State and Iowa from last year. With one team just making the cut, and the other one on the wrong side of the bubble they’re good examples of how thin the line is. I’ll also compare the 2010-11 Penn State team, because why not.
Iowa (19-15, 10-8)
The Hawkeyes finished the regular season square on the bubble. Losing in the second round of the Big Ten tournament to Indiana after a first-round bye sealed their fate as a non-qualifier. They finished in a 4-way tie for 5th place in the conference standings, which should tell you not to place too much weight in standings versus overall resume. Iowa had 5 wins against the field, their best coming against Iowa State (kenpom #17). They suffered from a down year in the Big Ten, but also hurt themselves by not performing great in non-conference play with a record of 9-6. Their worst loss came against Nebraska-Omaha (kp #176). Still, a deeper run in the Big Ten tournament likely would have earned them a trip to the big dance.
Michigan State (20-15, 10-8)
Despite the similarity in records, I think we’ll all agree who the better team was last year. Still, a young Spartans team didn’t perform up to their capabilities all year and it almost cost them a now 20-year streak of NCAA tournament berths. The Spartans won a total of 6 games against the field, with their best win also in non-conference play topping Wichita State (kp #8) on a neutral court. Wins over Wisconsin and Michigan were crucial to their selection, as Michigan State lost both of their meetings with the Big Ten’s top team, Purdue. Their worst lost came against Northeastern (kp #159). Losing their final two games of the regular season, a victory over Penn State in Big Ten tournament wasn’t meaningless.
Penn State 2010-11 (19-15, 9-9)
I’ve mentioned the conference tournament for the two teams above, in part because it so clearly made a difference in this case. Without an improbable run to the conference tournament championship game which also gave them another win over Wisconsin (kp #6), Penn State would not have been selected. The Nittany Lions won 3 games against the field during the regular season, with another 2 coming during the Big Ten tourney. Beating Wisconsin twice was a huge boost to the resume, and made up for their worst loss against Maine (kp #201). It’s not a recipe for success that I hope to see repeated, but should help assuage concerns if Penn State fails to grab a marquee win in the non-conference schedule. In the 2010-11 season, their best non-conference win came against Duquesne, albeit in one of their better years.
With expectations that the Big Ten will be better this year than last, 20 wins remains a fairly safe mark to shoot for when projecting a berth into the NCAA’s. Five to six wins against the field, even with one bad loss should put Penn State squarely in the discussion come March if they can get to 20 wins. A win over Michigan State (the all-out favorite to win the conference) would be a huge win that would stand alone on the resume.
I’ve broken down the schedule based on my projections for: must-win games (red), need-to-win (orange), good wins (yellow), quality wins against the field (green), and crown jewels (blue). They can afford to lose one of the must-wins, and about 2-3 of the need-to-wins, so long as they can make up the difference with the quality win opportunities of which they’ll have 12. Winning 5 of the games shaded in green, should afford the team 3 losses in games shaded red, orange, or yellow. Does it require consistent play throughout the entire season? Yes. Is it an improbable path for the team to take this year with the talent they’ll have? I don’t think so.
Now that the whole schedule is laid out before you, where do you stand on Penn State’s chances to make it into the NCAA tournament this year? Feel free to rip apart my grading of the games on this year’s schedule, but please provide some reasoning. I’m going off very preliminary preseason projections and how I expect teams to look after their performances last year.