Experts around the college basketball world have projected that as many as ten teams from the Big Ten conference will make the NCAA Tournament. With all the challenges that Penn State has faced this season, the team currently sits in tenth place in the B1G. If Jim Ferry and his team are going to make it to the Big Dance, they will need to get to an even record overall. Right now they are 6-7 so there isn’t as much work to do as it might seem.
Not only did the Lions make ESPN’s list this past week as being one of the last four teams out of Joe Lundardi’s tournament field projection, they are ranked well within the range to make the NCAA Tournament with a No. 29 NET Ranking. The team looks good in the Kenpom ratings as well, coming in at No. 36, featuring the toughest schedule in the country. Their vital statistics leave them needing to win one more game than they lose for the remainder of the season to be in consideration for a post-season bid.
There is no doubt that the team has the talent to play with anyone in the Big Ten and now that they have won 3 of the past 4 games, all against teams that were ranked at one point this season, their accomplishments are gaining attention. Across the country college basketball fans check the NET Rankings to see where their team is at any moment. When they cast their eyes into the projected NCAA Tournament field, which is any team in the top-40, they see Penn State.
A Great Era For PSU Hoops
With the Lions remaining in contention for a tournament bid heading into February, this could be the 4th season in a row that the program finishes in the top-50 of the college basketball standings. If that happens, it would be the first time for the program since the 1950’s.
Penn State won the NIT Championship after being on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble three years ago. Two seasons ago, with a losing record, the team finished 50th in the NET Rankings. Last year was one of the best teams that the program has ever fielded. With the team tempting a tournament run this year, we should take time to appreciate that we are watching some of the best basketball, in a four-year period, that has been seen during the modern era.
The next five games looked like a long-shot at the start of the season and it certainly will not be an easy stretch. The only game that the Lions are clearly favored to win is against Nebraska, but they will not be a major underdog against the other four teams. It appeared that Michigan State, Maryland, Wisconsin and Ohio State would be heavily favored in the coming games but the point spread will probably be within 5 points.
No win can be taken for granted so Nebraska is no gimme, but if Jim Ferry’s team plays well, they should win that game. If it can play its best, it may be able to win a couple of the other games in the coming weeks. A 3-2 record should be enough to get the team into the projected NCAA Field; a win against Nebraska and four good efforts could very well result in 3 wins.
There is a lot of basketball to be played but for fans that want the team to make the NCAA Tournament, hope is not lost. In fact, with each win it becomes more and more likely.
Four Players Can Go Off
The Lions have four players that can score twenty points on any given night; Seth Lundy, Izaiah Brockington, Sam Sessoms and Myreon Jones. On Saturday Jones (20) and Brockington (18) were the main offensive catalysts and John Harrar added 17 points, much of it coming in the final minutes of the game.
Seth Lundy only scored 2 points, well below his average, but the basket came at a critical moment. Late in the game with Wisconsin down 5, trying to put on pressure, the Lions were flailing during an important possession. Lundy took the ball with 7 seconds on the shot clock and hit a tough fade away mid-range jumper to keep the Badgers from cutting the lead to one possession on the next trip down the court. Wisconsin never did make it back to within one possession.
Brockington drove in the half-court set and finished in transition to keep the Lions on pace throughout the game. Myreon Jones hit all three of his 3-point attempts. Even with Lundy absent from the score sheet until the end of the game, there was enough firepower to run with a ranked team.
Jones, Brockington and Harrar were a combined 21 of 34 from the floor. The rest of the Penn State team was 6 of 26.
Penn State was able to play very good defense without fouling, a trend that has continued for the past few games. If the team can continue to keep their fouls down, their suffocating defense can cause opposing teams a lot of problems. Wisconsin came in averaging 8 turnovers per game and the Lions forced 12. While turnovers may not have been the only reason the game went to Penn State, it was clearly a point of emphasis for both teams and this time the Lions won.
While the scoring was dominated by three players the team filled out the score sheet nicely. Each player filled their role. Jamari Wheeler had two impactful steals, coming when the team really needed a spark, and added 9 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists. Wheeler stole the ball on one end of the court and found Myreon Jones for a 3-point shot the next time down the floor. It was a 4-point game and Wisconsin had the ball with 10 minutes to go. The Lions never let Wisconsin back to within 5 points for the rest of the game.
Myles Dread did not put up a lot of numbers but he played low-post defense against one of the best front-courts in the conference. There are at least 3 players in Wisconsin’s front-court that would be rated higher than any player on Penn State. Trent Buttrick held his own as well, contributing enough minutes to give Harrar an adequate rest.
For the fourth game in a row there was no forward or center on the court for either team that played a better game than John Harrar. That says a lot considering 5 of the 10 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year Watch list members come from the Big Ten conference and no, Harrar was not one of the five. The Lions rode to an NIT title during Harrar’s freshman season on the back of his efforts replacing an injured Mike Watkins. Now the team is leaning on him again and his strong shoulders can carry the weight without issue.
Five Wisconsin players had 3 or more fouls with 2 players fouling out. Only Jamari Wheeler and Sam Sessoms had 3 fouls for Penn State. It is no longer surprising that the Lions’ front-court is able to play without fouling, which was perceived to be a season-long struggle for the team. With the success that the group has had, Penn State’s lack of size up front has not kept the team from competing.