The Lions currently hold No. 27 in the NET Rankings and the KenPom number of 21 is near the all-time high for the program. The vital statistics are looking great for Pat Chambers’ team, riding a two-game winning streak that has evened the conference record. While the numbers all look pretty good for the team, other than the adjusted non-conference strength of schedule, really only one number should matter from this point forward when it comes to the team’s chances of making the NCAA tournament.
Conference wins, that is the most important number. Right now the Lions have 4 with 12 games remaining. If they can get to 10 it will stamp their ticket to the Big Dance. 9 should even be enough according to people that understand how the selection process works. Either way it won’t take a miracle for the program to get back to the NCAA tournament for only the third time this century; it will likely take just a 5-7 conference finish from this point, 6-6 at the most.
Penn State has the 296th non-conference strength of schedule according to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings system. There’s too much math involved to get into the weeds on that particular stat but just know that Illinois, currently 1st in the Big Ten and 31 in the NET Rankings, sits nearby at 321. No. 3 Gonzaga has a non-con rating of 241.
The Lions’ overall strength of schedule in the KenPom ratings (17) remains strong and should stay in the top-20 as the season progresses.
Let’s take a look at how Penn State’s non conference opponents have fared since we saw them.
The Big(ish) Boys
Alabama- (12-7 overall, 4-2 SEC) Kenpom 42, NET 38. This is beginning to look like the best non-con win of the season for the Lions. The Crimson Tide have won 4 in a row, losing only to Florida and Kentucky in conference play. It seems like the team could make the tournament with a strong finish, which would be a bit of a surprise, and would strengthen Penn State’s NET ranking if the trend continues.
Georgetown- (12-8 overall, 2-5 in Big East) Kenpom 52, NET 55. The Hoyas remain a nice non-con win for the Lions. Even though the team has lost 5 of the last 7 games, they remain in a respectable position in the rankings. If their losing streak continues, that may change. We’ll have to see how they fare over the next two months.
Yale- (14-4 overall, 2-0 in Ivy League) Kenpom 54, NET 60. The Bulldogs have only lost to North Carolina, on the road by 3 points, since playing Penn State. Their 4 losses this season have been by a combined 17 points, so they have been in every game that they have played. An 11-1 stretch since losing to the Lions by 2 points has made Yale a solid non-con opponent.
Syracuse- (13-7 overall, 6-3 ACC) Kenpom 50, NET 66. The Orangemen have won 5 in a row and are in 3rd place in the Big East standings. They have avoided taking a bad loss, their worst was to Oklahoma State (83). There is a good chance that the ‘Cuse will continue to move up in the standings as the season wears on.
Wake Forest- (9-9 overall, 2-6 ACC) Kenpom 103, NET 104. The Demon Deacons have lost 4 of the last 5 but all have come against top-75 teams in the NET. They are not expected to move much in the rankings so let’s hope that they hold their own and remain near the top-100, or creep slightly inside that threshold.
Mississippi- (10-9 overall, 1-5 SEC) Kenpom 116, NET 125. The Rebels just snapped a 6-game losing streak with a win over Georgia. The skid has cost Ole Miss dearly in the standings but there is enough talent on the team to finish the rest of the season strong. Four-point losses to Arkansas and LSU during the downward spiral indicates that the team was fighting, though coming up short.
The Not So Fab Five
The Lions have played against five teams that will not help them in the standings at all. The only good thing about knowing that Penn State has played these teams is knowing that with the non-conference slate complete, and a 1-1 B1G record entering January, it was enough for Pat Chambers’ team to reside in the top-20 of the NET Rankings.
So, no, these games will not help, but they did not pull the team out of contention, either. Here is how they are doing thus far.
There are 353 teams accounted for in the NET Rankings and UMES currently sits at 351. They shouldn’t feel too bad since Central Connecticut State has the distinction of holding the 353rd spot. Wagner sits at 308. Cornell is at 326. Bucknell is 237.
None of these teams are expected to move up or down much, though we can say definitively that CCSU will either move up in the rankings or stay exactly where they are. Should UMES drop, it will not be more than a spot or two. It is nice that we can joke about the five weakest links on the schedule since they do not appear to be weighing too heavily on Penn State’s overall rankings.
In typical seasons we would white-knuckle all of the numbers, trying to find a way that the Lions could creep into the field of 68 at the end of the season. Other than a handful of years over the past 25, the writing on the wall came by mid-February. Win the Big Ten tournament, that is the only way.
This year the team could win the Big Ten tournament or could go on a run that would place the it well within the field of 68 before the final few games of the regular season. For that reason it’s not necessary to sweat the little stuff, such as the insanely poor out of conference adjusted strength of schedule according to KenPom. Yes, outside of the NET Rankings there are no numbers more respected than those that come from Ken Pomeroy, it’s just that not all of those stats will impact the Lions’ position in a meaningful way.
At this point fans can focus on the games. If the Lions win one then lose one, or lose three and then win three which is a distinct possibility by Wednesday night, they will remain well within the NCAA bubble, on the happy side. At the lowest point this season the team dropped to 41st in the NET Rankings, even after losing three straight. That position will be granted a spot in the NCAA tournament later this year.
At No. 27, it would take another losing streak to get the team back down near the bubble. Until that happens, if it does, we can sit back and watch one of the best teams that has been assembled in Happy Valley in the modern era. It is sometimes stressful to watch, but this is what good basketball looks like at Penn State.