Penn State nearly got to first place in the Big Ten standings but Michigan State faltered late at home, giving Maryland the opening it needed to win and maintain its position atop the conference standings. The Lions are now in sole possession of second place in the best conference in the country, and sit with a NET Ranking of 16. While the focus has been upward, a quick look down in the standings shows some separation beginning to take place.
Nebraska and Northwestern are out of the hunt but every other team in the conference still has a chance to play its way to an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Minnesota is teetering on the edge of needing a run to stay in the field but with 7 games left to play, it’s too soon to count them out. A 5-2 finish would change their fate considerably.
From Penn State’s perspective, there is a gap forming below Wisconsin. From 8th place to 12th, the five teams are a full 3 games or more behind the Lions. There are still enough games remaining that any team in the top-12 of the B1G could win their way into the field, but with each passing day, Pat Chambers’ team is putting certain things behind them.
It is unlikely that the team will miss the NCAA Tournament at this point. It will soon be possible to rule out the Lions having to play on the first day of the B1G Tournament. It is also becoming more likely that it will be able to benefit from a double-bye.
Teams 11-14 play on the first day of the tournament and until recently, it has been a day that the Lions have had to suit up and play a game that could be a season-ending contest had they lost. If Penn State can add a couple of wins to its total, it is going to make it very hard for teams trailing in the standings to knock them out of a top-4 spot.
The top-4 is significant because it allows the teams two byes in the tournament. Instead of having to win 5 games, as the teams seeded 11 or lower would need, a double-bye team would need just 3 wins for the Big Ten title. We’ve seen that the Lions can run off any number of wins, the team is currently on a program-record 8 game conference winning streak.
Having two days off in the conference tournament would make the chances of taking home a title that much more likely.
With Myreon Jones out, Myles Dread has rejoined the starting lineup. For the past 3 games he has averaged over 30 minutes played. After a mid-season shooting slump had him looking for a new way to contribute, his shot came back against Ohio State on January 18. For the 5 games prior to the win against the Buckeyes, Dread shot just 2 for 23 from behind the arc. Since then he has gone 20 for 48, good for 42%, and the Lions have won 8 straight games.
Dread has hit at least 2 deep balls per game for the past 6, so his cold streak is thankfully far enough in the rear-view mirror to talk about it in the past-tense. Even while he is not hitting from outside, Dread is a critical part of one of the best defenses in the country. He is versatile, using his big body to help on larger players on the post and allowing the defense to rotate without creating a match-up advantage for the other team.
Dread does a lot for the Lions and while he is a sophomore, it seems like he has played several years already. It was tough to watch as the ball avoided the hoop during his shooting struggles. His stroke was solid all the while, but other factors kept the ball out.
On Saturday, with Penn State’s lead cut to just 7 points and the team struggling to make a shot, Dread stepped up to start a run that would put the game on ice.
It was late in the shot clock and Dread benefited from the attention that Lamar Stevens was getting, and the distraction provided by John Harrar’s late pick and roll action. Penn State then made 5 free throws and got a layup from Mike Watkins. Dread capped the 13-0 run off with another deep ball with a minute to play.
Watch as he gave up the ball and then motioned across to Izaiah Brockington to run through the lane to utilize screens by Mike Watkins and Trent Buttrick. Dread and Brockington crossed through the lane and Dread got open with a good hesitation move, lulling the defender to lapse momentarily before he used the Trent Buttrick screen to get a great shot to extend the lead to 20 points.
With the adversity that the Lions have faced throughout the season, it has been able to weather most of it by utilizing the depth on the roster. Dread went to the bench when he was struggling because the team had such quality depth that there were players ready to step in to provide a boost.
With a player here or there struggling at times, or in the case of Myreon Jones, out with illness, the holes in the lineup, or gaps in production, have provided opportunities for players to develop or step up into more defined roles.
Myles Dread is a player that opposing teams loathe to have defending them, his long arms and big body wear people down and provide few open places to get off a clean shot. When he is shooting well, it provides an additional threat for opponents to guard. While Jones has been recovering, Dread and others have benefited from the opportunity provided by his absence.
Here is what coach Chambers had to say about Dread following the win against Northwestern. Click the volume button to hear what coach had to say.
Odds And Ends
- John Harrar doesn’t dominate the stat sheet, we all know that. One thing he does well is take care of the ball. His ball handling at the top of the key allows the offense to flow more freely. It may be a surprise, but only Myles Dread (2.1) has a higher assist to turnover ratio than Harrar (1.8), who is tied with Myreon Jones and Jamari Wheeler at that number.
- Myreon Jones has missed 3 straight games and he still has played more minutes (648) than any other player besides Lamar Stevens (753). Jamari Wheeler (627) and Myles Dread (616) have played a little more recently in Jones’ absence. Izaiah Brockington (532) has played starter minutes while John Harrar (393) and Mike Watkins (537) have held down the center position.
- Jamari Wheeler increased his 3-point shooting to 48% on the year. He’s made 12 of 25 attempts, not a large amount, but teams are going to begin to take note that he has become less of a liability on the outside. Over the past 5 games, Wheeler has hit 7 of his last 11 attempts.
- Penn State has reached No. 11 in the Kenpom ratings, the highest level the team has ever achieved since the ratings have been in existence. The system is built to rank teams based on their potential to play well, including stats for offense, defense, luck and several measurements of schedule strength. The NET Rankings account only for what teams have done, in terms of wins and losses against the NCAA field. The Kenpom ratings vary from the NET due to teams not playing up to their statistical ability, but as we all know, the games are played on hardwood, not paper. It’s nice to see the computers like Penn State, though.
- Seth Lundy started but only played 14 minutes and didn’t exactly fill out the score sheet. He got two fouls midway through the first half and never got going after that. He contributed on defense and was available had Chambers needed him out there for more minutes, but the freshman is still breaking in slowly. It is nice, not having to rely on freshmen as the team has in recent years, and allowing them to weather the ups and downs that come with adjusting to the college game. In past years, a down game by a freshman could mean a loss for the squad. This year it typically goes without notice.