With the regular season behind us, Penn State looks to make some noise in the Big Ten Tournament. Due to Mike Watkins’s injury, the Nittany Lions lost two opportunities to move up in the standings, but as it turned out, their Big Ten Tournament draw is not exactly murderer’s row. The Lions have the right combination of highly ranked opponents and winnable matchups on their path that making a run is possible, even if Watkins has to miss time.
Based on where teams are ranked and what seed Penn State drew, there are a number of possibilities for each game if they win their first two. Here’s how it would break down:
Northwestern didn’t just limp to the finish line, they crashed and burned well before we got to this point. The Wildcats know that without a major run in the Big Ten Tournament there will be no postseason play in the cards. They might be ready to call it quits at this point. The Wildcats also played Bryant McIntosh for seven minutes against Iowa, so he may not be at 100% himself.
This is a game where Penn State could sit Watkins if he’s not yet recovered from his injury, and as long as the Lions don’t go on a 10-minute scoring drought, the rest of the defense should be able to hold a team that also has the tendency to go on long scoring droughts. If they can afford it, this should be a game where the starters sit for at least 10 minutes.
Two things need to happen for the Nittany Lions to survive this one. First, they need to shoot as well as they did in the first two meetings. The Buckeyes will be extra motivated to avoid a third loss to Penn State in one season (something that has never happened before), and will throw different defensive looks to ensure the Lions don’t get the open shots they got the last two times.
The second thing that needs to happen is, if Watkins is still out for this game, Julian Moore, John Harrar, and Satchel Pierce need to step their games up to provide the defense inside that made the other two wins possible. The Lions forced the Buckeyes to make contested shots outside, and combined with their hot shooting were able to build double digit leads in both games. If Ohio State is able to get whatever they want inside, Penn State might be the team trying to keep pace this time around.
Purdue OR Indiana OR Minnesota OR Rutgers
Path of least resistance: Rutgers
Most beneficial: Indiana
This is the point where Penn State starts to see the variance in what opponent they could face. The good news is that the Nittany Lions will not be the only team with at least one game under their belt in this matchup. If Penn State is able to make it this far, it’s easy to say they should want Purdue in order to improve their NCAA Tournament profile, but the reality is that this would be the third game for Penn State, the second for Purdue, and if Watkins is out, the likely end of the Lions’ run.
The Nittany Lions’ best path to the finals would be facing Rutgers, who has not really made any strides on offense since the last time these two teams played. That would nearly guarantee a trip to the tournament final, but wouldn’t do much for Penn State’s RPI. On the one hand, you have a shot at an auto bid by beating whoever makes it to the final from the other side. On the other, you have at best a quadrant 3 win that won’t do much for you in the event Penn State loses the final (as would be the operating assumption at this point, unless chaos also happens on the other side).
On the other hand, the Nittany Lions could face Indiana, whose inside presence isn’t as terrifying as Purdue’s, and would be coming off two games in two days, like Penn State. The Hoosiers currently sit at 110 in the most recent RPI rankings, which means a win over either Minnesota or Rutgers, plus another one against Purdue, would put them over the 100 threshold, making them a quadrant 2 win if the Lions were to beat them.
Like Rutgers, Minnesota doesn’t provide much for the Nittany Lions, but they have already beat Penn State on the road. This is the matchup they would want to see the least aside form Purdue.
Iowa OR Illinois OR Wisconsin OR Maryland OR Michigan OR Nebraska OR Michigan State
Path of least resistance: Iowa
Least beneficial: Michigan State, Michigan
If Penn State is fortunate enough to make it to this point, they absolutely want the weakest matchup from the other side of the bracket. An auto bid would be within their grasp, and “earning” it against a tough opponent becomes a lot less important than actually winning the game.
Of all the teams on that side of the Bracket, Iowa provides the best matchup for the Nittany Lions. Not only would they be on their fifth game in as many days, Iowa’s defensive struggles bode well for a Penn State team that could be without Watkins still. The chances of this happening are slim to none, but if they did, here’s how it could happen:
- Wisconsin beats Maryland, then proceeds to beat Michigan State, as they almost did in Madison.
- Iowa beats Illinois again, gets in a shootout against Michigan (one they finally come out on the good side of, for once), then beats a Nebraska team that has proven to be wholly mediocre outside of Pinnacle Bank Arena.
- Having already beaten Wisconsin in the regular season, Iowa does it again in the Big Ten Tournament.
At this point, the Hawkeyes are going to be exhausted, but they’ll have the same goal as the Nittany Lions in mind: Win one more game, and the NCAA tournament is yours for the taking.
In a more realistic scenario, Nebraska would be the most beneficial game for the reason stated above. Since PBA opened in 2013, Nebraska has won zero times against Penn State outside of those comfortable confines. They are 0-6 against the Nittany Lions in true road games and neutral site contests, dating back to the 2013-14 season. What makes this scenario less likely, however, is the Huskers’ not-so-good track record in Big Ten Tournament matchups. The only time they’ve made it out of their opening round was in 2015-16, where they made it to Friday as the surprise Wednesday team.
In reality, Penn State is most likely to face either Michigan or Michigan State. If Watkins is still out, this would also mean the end of their run. If not, the possibility of an inspired game with the tournament within their grasp is possible, and, were it to happen, would be for different reasons: In Michigan State’s case, the distractions that have surrounded the program for the past month and change could finally catch up to them (as they almost did at Wisconsin), coupled with the fatigue of playing three games in three days. In Michigan’s case, they’d have played four games in four days just like the Nittany Lions, but they theoretically would have faced a tougher path. Facing the Nebraska team that worked them in their only meeting, then facing a Michigan State team looking for revenge after they got worked the first time around could have emotional implications aside from the physical ones.
Any scenario where Penn State makes the tournament at this point requires at least a trip to the Big Ten Tournament final. How they get there, and what they do if and when they get there, is up for debate. It would be up to the committee to assess the team’s profile at that point, but if the Lions can accomplish the feat, they’d be in good position to sneak their way in, or even leave no doubt behind.