Penn State holds No. 23 in the NET Rankings coming off its second road win in conference play. On Monday, we may see the team slide a little higher in the AP poll, for what that is worth.
On Sunday there will be just one Big Ten match-up on the schedule, Iowa hosts Illinois at 1 p.m. on Fox Sports 1. It gives us a chance to take a look at the standings and rankings on a day that little is expected to change.
The Lions are currently in a tie for fifth place in the Big Ten with Iowa and two games back of the Illini for first place. It’s a little too early in the season to begin micromanaging the outcomes of games, to figure which would be best for Penn State. Should Iowa win, the Lions will be in sixth place but will be a half of a game closer to first place in the standings.
As fans of basketball, it’s nice to have games other than the Lions’ to enjoy during this historic season for the program. The strength of the Big Ten has made it easy to watch and it should only get better as we enter the second half of conference play.
With no disrespect to Nebraska or Northwestern, two teams that will likely not make the post-season, there are currently 12 Big Ten teams with NCAA Tournament aspirations. For the rest of the league the path to the tournament remains wide open and though some teams will have to win a few more games than others to get there, none are near elimination at this point.
Due to their position in the NET Rankings, mostly related to their weakish performance in the non-conference portion of the schedule, Indiana (52), Minnesota (44) and Purdue (37) are the true bubble-watch teams heading into the second half in the Big Ten. Those are teams that will need to finish 9-11 or better during the regular season and possibly win a B1G Tournament game to get an at-large invitation to the Big Dance. There are projections run by professional outlets that have these teams within the field at this point and others that do not.
Michigan (31) and Ohio State (20) are each two games under .500 in conference play but due to their NET Rankings, they are on slightly better footing than the Hoosiers, Gophers and Boilermakers.
The rest of the league, at this point, should be concerned with Big Ten and NCAA Tournament seeding. Until the top seven teams in the conference lose a few games, there is no reason to fear the bubble.
Jon Gasaway, an ESPN Insider that publishes the Bubble Watch, came out with his first analysis on Sunday morning. This is what he had to say about Penn State.
The Nittany Lions have a shot at equaling or even exceeding the best NCAA tournament seed in program history. Penn State earned a spot on the No. 5 line in the 1996 tournament, and this season Lamar Stevens & Co. appear to be headed in that same general direction. Pat Chambers’ men take very good care of the ball and then prevent opponents from doing the same thing. It’s simple. It works. If this group can work around its iffy rebounding and frequent (by Big Ten standards) fouling, we might see Penn State in the second weekend for the first time since 2001.
That is the type of talk that would have had people rolling their eyes just a few months ago, thinking that the writer was a delusional homer, the only such person that could see it that way. Now many people around the country seem to feel much better about the Lions’ shot of making the NCAA Tournament than some of their faithful fans.
Ten more conference games remain. A lot can happen. Fans can let their shoulders relax a little bit for now. Get used to playing from out in front, not chasing as it has been for so long. The bubble monster is far enough in the rear view mirror that we can focus on the windshield, at least for now. When it’s time to worry about the Lions missing the NCAA Tournament, we’ll let you know. For now, enjoy the climb.
It has been a bit of a problem for the Lions lately, this thing we call boxing out. In past years Penn State’s issue on the boards was typically that it was out-matched in both size and skill. That is no longer as much of a problem.
To say that the Lions aren’t giving the effort needed would be to imply that they aren’t trying hard enough. That wouldn’t be entirely fair, when watching how hard the players play on defense. The issue seems to be with mental awareness, a type of sharpness that has been lacking as a shot is made.
A momentary lack of discipline has given opposing teams too many second chances. Since it has not been a scheme or skill issue, there remains a chance that the coaches and players can find the intensity needed at that key moment. It seems as though the players just need to bare down a little bit more. Easy for me to say, reclining on my sofa.
Harrar The Unheralded
John Harrar and Mike Watkins contributed 39 minutes at the center position for Penn State against Nebraska. Together they provided 20 rebounds, 17 points, 2 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocked shots. Sure, with Watkins’ 11-point, 17-rebound game it was he who provided much of the production. Harrar may not have been great, but he was solid, as he has been for most of his career.
For people looking for a hint of proof that Harrar truly is playing well, and not finding it in the numbers, look at offensive rebounds. Harrar is currently 19th in the Big Ten, grabbing 1.7 offensive rebounds per game. That does not sound impressive, but when you consider that he has done that in just 14.9 minutes per game, it gets a little more impactful. Harrar’s minutes have increased since joining the starting lineup and we should see that translate to his numbers as well.
Only one player above Harrar in the B1G offensive rebound leaders has seen the court for fewer than 20 minutes per game. The average is more like 25 minutes plus, closer to 30. Among the top-20 in the league, Harrar’s offensive rebound stats per 40 minutes played are right there among the leaders, names such as Oturu, Garza, Cockburn, Wesson, Jackson-Davis, Watkins, etc.
Harrar has had more offensive rebounds than defensive for each of his two full seasons at Penn State. During his freshman season he grabbed 29 offensive rebounds and 28 on defense. Last year it was 58 to 56. This year he has 36 on offense, 37 on defense.
While Harrar does not put the ball in the hoop very often, he does facilitate with his passing at the top of the key and also while fighting to keep lose balls alive, and sometimes, grabbing an offensive rebound.
Current B1G Stats
The Lions are not doing so well on the boards, ranking 13th at grabbing defensive rebounds. It’s ability to snag offensive rebounds at a rate high enough for 5th place in the league has kept Penn State at 10th in the league in rebounding margin. That is serviceable but an improvement on the defensive boards would be welcomed.
The Lions are 10th in defending 3-point shots and 8th in making them. Not great, not horrible. From the free throw line Penn State ranks 11th at 68%. Recent woes, during wins, have contributed to that low number from the charity stripe. Hopefully that, like the rebounding deficiencies, can be improved through a little bit more mental attention.
Penn State remains the second-highest scoring team in the league, a stat that may surprise many people who have not been watching the games closely this year. Only Iowa scores more per game, and they have a national player of the year candidate on their team and a style that encourages offense.
Blocked shots and steals have not been an problem for the Lions. They lead the league in each of those categories. The Lions are 5th in the league in assists per game, an improvement over past years.
11 Big Ten teams average more than 10,000 fans per home game. Rutgers is averaging 7,966 in a stadium that has a capacity of 8,000 and has had one of the most dominant home-court advantages in the country this season. Penn State has averaged 8541 per game in a stadium that has the potential to seat almost double that amount. We have seen an uptick in attendance since the team has been playing better. Let’s hope that coming down the stretch, the Bryce Jordan Center will as full as possible.
Following a successful campaign in 1995-96, which saw the Lions make the NCAA Tournament, attendance at the BJC was 13,145 per game, up over 2,000 from the previous year. When the team made the run to the Sweet 16 during the 2000-2001 season attendance was 10,588.
The Lions averaged 7,197 last year so we have already seen a bump of close to 1,500 fans this year, and with ten more games to go, with the team ranked, that number should continue to climb. If the season has a positive finish, we should see growth in the overall attendance next year. It’s something that does not happen overnight, but since the team has drawn over 10,000 per contest before, it is something to work toward, knowing it has been done, at Penn State, in that building.
One thing is for sure, the fans that have attended the games this year have given the team a huge boost at times when it needed it. Those of us that can remember the days when the house was nearly packed on a regular basis can attest to it. The more the merrier. The cheering only gets better, and more effective, with additional voices and hands clapping in the stands.