Penn State will head into the second half of the season holding the No. 15 spot in the Net Rankings. The team also stands at No. 21 in the AP Poll.
Yesterday the team slid up a spot into 16, a new high for the program in the Net Rankings. Today Pat Chambers’ squad climbed a notch higher. While it is great to get recognition in the voting polls, at the end of the year, only the Net Rankings will impact Penn State’s entry to the NCAA Tournament or the seeding once in the field.
Quick Net Ranking Summary
There is a thorough explanation of the Net Rankings here at the NCAA.com website.
While the Net Rankings replaced the RPI last year as the primary sorting tool for the NCAA Tournament selection committee, it is not the only consideration. Here is the complete selection criteria that the committee will use.
In short, there are 32 teams that will get an automatic bid, leaving 36 at-large spots for the 68-team field. Any team ranked in the top 40 or so will have a chance for an at-large spot. Should the Lions hang in the top-30, they would be a lock.
The Big Ten is one of the highest-rated conferences in the Net Rankings, with 9 teams currently in the top-40, and 12 teams in the top-56. Just Nebraska (169) and Northwestern (180) are low in the rankings in the 14-team league. That will bode well now that the conference schedules begin in full around the country.
With conference play each game has to have a winner and a loser. The difference is that the strength of schedule, as measured by assigning quadrants to each team for each game, will favor the Big Ten. So with each conference game played, all things held equal, the Big Ten will get stronger in the ratings.
Here is a diagram of the complete process.
The students will be away for another couple of weeks but the action is getting ready to heat back up on the basketball court for Penn State. It has been over two weeks since the Lions’ comeback against Alabama, and two weeks to the day since the team made its debut in the voting polls and top-20 in the Net Rankings.
Since then the team got a 9-day break sandwiched between two tune-up games, one against Central Connecticut State and then yesterday against Cornell. The break allowed the group to get a rest for their bodies and minds, to recharge their batteries. It also gave Pat Chambers the best chance that he will have to make adjustments to the team’s strategy.
Against Cornell the Lions unveiled a couple of new looks; an extended 2-3 zone and also some player combinations that had not been seen such as Lundy, Stevens and Watkins all on the court for extended time. The break wasn’t as long as the one that the football team gets before the bowl game, but with nine days, there are adjustments that can be made.
The Lions will play against Iowa in the Palestra in Philadelphia on Saturday in a game that will be broadcast nationally on the Big Ten Network. With the Hawkeyes sitting at 34 in the Net Rankings, and the game played on a neutral court, it is a chance for both teams to grab a quadrant 1 win.
The Hunt For An NCAA Birth
As we watch the team heading toward what looks like a potential, if not likely, NCAA Tournament appearance, it will be helpful to remember a couple of things.
First, the Big Ten is rated highly for a reason. Any team can win on a given night, especially the top 12 teams, so there will be no easy path to the tournament. Another thing is that the requirement to make the field could likely be a .500 finish from this point. With the strength of the league and the Lions’ current position in the Net Rankings, a 10-10 conference record with a win and a loss in the Big Ten Tournament should be enough.
This phrase gets used a lot but sometimes it fits. I’m old enough to remember the 1995-96 Penn State basketball season because it was was my senior year in State College. That year the team finished 12-6 in conference, by far the best finish in the Big Ten for the program. The team could go on a run and get enough games over .500 in the league that it would clinch an at-large bid before the conference tournament. It has been done before. Once.
On the flip side, we all know how hard it can be, emotionally, to watch the Lions on the court. While this team is different in many ways, the fans carry the weight of years of disappointing seasons. While the losses will hopefully be fewer this year than in past years, they will sting just as bad, maybe worse. Remember that in 2001, the Crispin-led Sweet 16 appearance came following a 7-9 Big Ten finish.
Penn State finished the conference slate with a 7-3 record last year and was one of the best teams in the country for a stretch of a month in February into March. In 2018 the team had a 5-1 stretch in-conference before winning the last 5 games for the NIT Championship. Pat Chambers’ teams typically get stronger as the season progresses so there’s a better chance that the team will finish with a record above .500 than not.
This season the challenge might be to avoid a losing streak, especially one of more than a couple of games. That way a hot streak would put the team well over .500 and safely in a tournament at-large position. If not, it may turn into alternating wins with losses, for 18 games, to get to the mark.
Either way fans will have an entertaining season to enjoy, one that we may be talking about twenty years from now.