Penn State (19-13-2) had to wait until the final goal of the Big Ten regular-season was scored to find out its destination for the conference tournament. Wisconsin completed a sweep of Michigan, and with the Badgers’ winning overtime goal just before midnight on Saturday, the Lions held on to the 4th position in B1G standings.
For the second consecutive season the Lions will host a best-of-three series in the opening round of the Big Ten tournament. That sets up a meeting with Wisconsin, the games are scheduled for Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 6 p.m. and Sunday at 6 p.m. if necessary.
Here is the complete bracket.
As you can see within the bracket, after the first round, the next two rounds are single games. That means that Penn State has just three more chances to gain an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament; two potential wins in the first round and then one possible win in the next round. Were the Lions to gain 4 more wins, they would grab the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament by winning the Big Ten Championship for the second time in three years.
There is still enough hockey to be played that nothing is set in stone as far as the NCAA tournament is concerned. Penn State is currently in the 16th spot in the PairWise Rankings, which means at this moment they are the last team that will not be offered an at-large bid. With 5 automatic bids set to go to the conference champions, each champ that is outside of the top-16 in the final PairWise Rankings will bump one of the teams from the field.
As it stands right now, the Atlantic Hockey champion will be outside the top-16, so were the remaining 4 automatic bids to go to teams already in the top-16, that would mean all teams ranked 15 or higher will make the tournament. That happens once in a while but it is more likely that the Lions will have to move to the 14 or 13 spot to have a shot at an at-large bid.
That is more possible than some people predicted just a couple of weeks ago. The Big Ten conference is by far stronger in terms of PairWise ranking than any other conference in the country. Every other conference has at least one team ranked lower than 40 and multiple teams ranked lower than 30. Every team in the Big Ten is ranked 27 or better.
With Minnesota’s sweep of No. 8 Arizona State this past weekend, the Gopher’s moved up to 20 in the rankings and that helped the entire Big Ten.
Here is the portion of the PairWise Rankings that is considered the bubble of the NCAA tournament.
The column to the far right is the RPI for each team. As you can see there is only .0002 separating Penn State from Notre Dame. It is possible if the Lions match the win total of the Irish during the Big Ten tournament, that PSU could jump one spot above them. It’s that close. For Penn State to catch Harvard or Western Michigan, it may take one of those teams struggling down the stretch combined with some PSU wins. All of the teams ranked 20 or better have an 11% or better chance of making the field as an at-large team.
Here is the complete breakdown of the PairWise Probability Matrix provided by College Hockey News. Penn State’s probability of making the tournament more than doubled with the split in South Bend, going to 31% at this moment. Now that the Lions will be hosting the first round, it is that much more likely that the team will survive and advance.
As you can see, there are still enough scenarios that may unfold that it is a bit too early to begin micro-managing the possible outcomes around the country. For now, the Lions are in the spot that they would have hoped to be at the start of the season. They host a first-round series in the Big Ten tournament and have a chance to win their way to an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
A week from today, were the Lions to prevail in the first round, the NCAA tournament picture should be much clearer, and we will break down the games to watch around the country as other conference tournaments unfold.