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0 For Five Then Come Alive: The Penn State Formula

It could be a very entertaining finish to the season for fans.

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

Jim Ferry got his first Big Ten conference win in six tries and while it may not have been the plan to lose the first five games it may be a winning formula. The Penn State football team lost its first five games before finishing with a 4-game win streak. The hockey team lost the first five and then evened their record with a 7-2 streak.

Are the Lions better than Nebraska and Northwestern? If they are then the team will have a record of 4-5 in the Big Ten conference following three games against the pair, one which comes this Saturday at home against the Wildcats.

Northwestern has plenty of talent, including Talor Battle’s younger brother Boo Buie, but they have lost 6 games in a row after winning their first 3 Big Ten games. Nebrasketball is facing similar covid issues as Penn State, having the four games prior to playing the Lions on January 30 postponed. It will amount to a 20-day layoff for the team.

Three of the next 7 games will come against Northwestern and Nebraska. That leaves 2 against Wisconsin, a trip to Michigan State and a home game with Maryland. It’s hard to project how the games will be played but there is reason to believe that the Lions could split with Maryland and MSU. If Jim Ferry’s team could find a way to split with Wisconsin, it would be in a solid position after the next 7 games.

That is, provided that Jim Ferry’s team is better than both Northwestern and Nebraska. It may prove to be more important for the team to win against the teams that it is favored than it will be for the team to pull a major upset. Penn State has one of the toughest schedules in all of NCAA basketball so it will not matter where the wins come from if the team can get to within 2 games of .500 in conference play by the end of the regular-season.

There is still a reasonable chance that the team could do that. The final 5 games on the schedule have one glaring game which the Lions will be a heavy underdog, on the road against Iowa.

Penn State’s schedule coming down the home stretch is not the murder’s row that it appeared to be at the beginning of the season. Yes, Ohio State, Purdue, Minnesota and Maryland are good teams, but the ball could easily bounce the Lions’ way. It looks like 8 wins out of 18 games will be enough for the team to head to the Big Ten tournament with a chance for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

If the Lions are better than Nebraska and Northwestern, that would mean that they need just 4 more wins in conference play. Looking at the remaining schedule it is not the long-shot that it would seem for a team that started the season with five losses.

With its current schedule, an 8-10 B1G record and 11-11 record overall would put it right on the NCAA Tournament bubble, needing a win, maybe two in the conference tournament to get to the Big Dance. There’s a lot of basketball to be played in the coming months but the possibilities remain.

Penn State never fell outside the top-45 in the NET Rankings during its losing streak and with the win their vital statistics put them within the typical field of contention for post-season play. Now the team just needs to win games.

It has a chance, if it is better than Northwestern and Nebraska, to make a run. The team didn’t need to beat Illinois. It doesn’t need to beat Iowa. It needs to compete and do well against middle-of-the-pack teams in the conference.

The only time Nebraska has made the NCAA Tournament as a member of the Big Ten happened during a season that they started 1-5 in Big Ten play. Rutgers was ranked earlier in the season and has now lost 5 in a row. We saw how well the Scarlet Knights can play when their shots are falling toward the end of the game on Thursday. Last year Ohio State lost 6 out of 7 Big Ten games during a rough stretch and they were still in position to make the tournament when the season was canceled. Michigan had a similar slump.

Penn State dropped 5 of 6 games to close out the year with one of the best teams in program history last season, a year that it would have been as high as a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament. We know that college basketball teams go on runs during a game and as the schedule unfolds. Maybe the Lions, who competed mightily in all but the two losses to Illinois, are poised to turn things around.

The good news for fans is that the losing streak is over. Whether the team will be able to finish 7-5 in conference play, and stay in the hunt for the post-season, remains to be seen. There is a reasonable chance that it could happen if they continue to play hard, and if they prove to be better than Nebraska and Northwestern.

Harrar The Hero

We have heard a lot of talk about Penn State’s lack of depth at center. It is obvious, there isn’t a lot of depth in the team’s front court. John Harrar, however, has been playing great basketball. Rutgers’ two centers combined for 12 rebounds in 40 minutes. Harrar had 11 in 31 very important minutes.

Harrar averaged fewer than 20 minutes played per game coming into this season. He averaged 23 coming into the game against Rutgers. With Myles Dread unavailable to help out on the low-post, it seemed like Jim Ferry would go deeper into his bench. Instead only 7 players saw the court, with Abdou Tsimbila being a notable coaches’ decision to sit it out. Harrar stepped up, as did Trent Buttrick, who contributed 17 minutes. Harrar and Buttrick combined for 3 fouls while facing the formidable front-court of Rutgers.

Harrar is averaging 11 rebounds and just under 10 points over the past 4 games, coming against Purdue, Indiana, Illinois and Rutgers. All of those teams have players at center that are credited as being much better than Harrar, but for some reason they have not been able to contain him. Maybe the other big men are a little over-rated. Maybe Harrar is better than his critics say. His production and minutes make it possible for Penn State to compete. Without Harrar playing well the team would be in big trouble.