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The Path To The NCAA Tournament: Find Seven Wins

The time off for the team could prove to be beneficial.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty years ago the Penn State basketball program made it to the Sweet 16 while finishing the Big Ten regular-season schedule with 7 wins and 9 losses. If the team can find a way to a 7-9 finish this year, it would likely need a win in the Big Ten tournament to have a shot at getting an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Only twice since joining the league has the Penn State basketball program been in a position to make the NCAA Tournament without winning a game in the Big Ten tournament. With a conference record of 12-6 during the 1995-96 season the team was a lock heading into the Big Ten Tournament. Last season that was the case as well.

Other than that the only way the team has been able to make the NCAA Tournament since joining the Big Ten was to get to a certain level of wins in the regular-season and then win a game or two during the conference tournament. The best-case scenarios for the team look as though that will be the case this year.

Were the Lions able to get to 8-8 in Big Ten conference play this year, with a finish of 8-5, that might be enough to allow the team a first-round loss in the conference tournament. We can have that conversation leading up to the tournament if the team goes on such a run. Otherwise a return to the NCAA Tournament for Jim Ferry’s squad will require a great deal of success during the regular-season stretch run and then a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament.

The focus today is to show that there is a path for the team to get to seven wins in the Big Ten conference, and that a 7-6 finish is not the long-shot that it may appear for an 0-3 team that has just missed two weeks of competition.

Eggs Not Chickens

It has always been problematic to look at the schedule and predict the outcome of games, even on the day that the game is going to be played. We won’t try to pick winners but equally important for a fan base that is not accustomed to seeing success on the hardwood, no game should be conceded before played, either.

You can’t count your wins before they hatch nor can you figure if the team may lay an egg on a given night.

The Next Seven

We have to assume that Penn State will get through the rest of the schedule with a 7-6 record so if that is the case, the team will be favored to win at home against Northwestern and Maryland. Northwestern has a nice team this year but they trail PSU in both the NET Rankings and Kenpom as well. Maryland is four spots ahead in the NET and three in Kenpom.

Nebraska would be as close to a must-win as the Lions have on the schedule at this point if they would want to squeak into the NCAA Tournament with a 7-9 Big Ten conference record. The Huskers are 4-8 and not playing very well as a team.

Michigan State is not the typical team we have come to fear and while there is a great deal of talent on the roster, it does not appear, at this point anyway, that they will become a top-20 team this year. It is far from easy to go to East Lansing and come back with a win but it may not be that big of an upset if things don’t change much in the coming weeks. The Lions are slightly behind the Spartans in the Kenpom Rankings but are ahead in the NET by over 40 spots.

At Illinois and Wisconsin will clearly be the toughest challenges in the next seven games and the team has a puncher’s chance to win either game. If they were able to pull an upset it would change the outlook greatly.

The next game against Purdue could be equally impactful. We have gotten used to the idea that the Boilermakers are naturally the Lions’ better but the current roster has had success in Mackey Arena. The last time Seth Lundy went there he hit six three-point shots and led the team to an 88-76 win. It would be great if the trip could inspire Lundy to get back to scoring as he did earlier in the year.

Penn State and Purdue are No. 39 and No. 40 in the NET Rankings, Purdue has a slight edge in the Kenpom rankings. Considering that there will not be fans inside Mackey Arena, the odds-makers will favor the home team but it won’t be a major upset if Lundy and his teammates leave with a win, either.

I’m not big on making predictions but if I were to guess how the next seven games will go it would be as such: two Penn State wins of over 15 points, two losses of roughly that margin or greater, then three toss-up games. Purdue, Maryland and Michigan State, at this point, look like they could go either way but you never know which of the seven games will turn out as expected.

The Final Six

Only the game against Iowa seems like an impossible mission at this point. Who knows, maybe Penn State will pull an upset? Even without that, there are clearly some games that the Lions can win coming down the stretch. That emphasizes how important the coming weeks will be, if the team can win a few games and keep within striking distance toward the end of the year.

Ohio State, Minnesota and Maryland all have solid teams but those games along with Purdue should be considered toss-ups. The Nebraska game is one that the team would need to win, otherwise it would require a major upset to replace it.

When looking at the schedule it is easy to see Iowa, Wisconsin and Illinois and figure that the Lions would be 0-6 if you added those games to their current record. That may turn out to be the case, but if it does, remember that the team can probably afford three more losses after that.

There are three games that the team would really like to win; two against Nebraska and one against Northwestern. We learned last year that even one of the best teams in program history can lose to the Wildcats. There are no gimmes, if Penn State can’t go 3-0 they will need to win more of the toss-up games or pull an upset.

There are seven toss-up games, where the Lions will be neither heavily favored or an underdog. The team may only need to win four of them if they can beat Nebraska twice and then Northwestern. It appears right now that any seven wins out of the thirteen remaining games will be enough to keep the team in the hunt for the NCAA Tournament heading into the Big Ten Tournament.