College sports, unlike the its professional counterparts, does not enjoy the benefit of having a small enough set of teams to simply make a playoff out of every conference champion. Instead, they stick to traditions, metrics, committees, and every which measure the powers that be feel comfortable with at the moment.*
College basketball is well ahead of college football on that front, having found a not-perfect, but pretty consistent measure of who get to play for the sport’s biggest prize: Every conference champion is in**.
After rewarding every team that won their conference, the committee picks the remaining teams based on a set of metrics that are out in the open for everyone to see, and rarely do they deviate from that formula. One may argue, especially in seasons past, that even if the committee was consistent in how they selected teams, the metrics they used to do this were lacking. So the committee went and found a set of metrics that would better represent not just the quality of the teams, but their actual accomplishments on the field. And thus, the NCAA Evaluation Tool, or NET for short, was born.
Why did I waste the entire lede on this obvious statement, you ask? Because the Penn State Nittany Lions have been the darlings of this new metrics system since its inception. The NCAA has been using the NET for three seasons, and in each one, Penn State has lived inside the top 50 despite its record. The Nittany Lions finished 14-18 in 2019, but ranked 50th in the NET. They finished a more respectable 21-10 in 2020, with a commensurate 35th ranking to boot. Now, the Nittany Lions find themselves inside ranked 28th, with an overall record of 7-8, and a conference record of 4-7.
Teams haven’t historically made the tournament with losing records. Not many have made it with merely a .500 record. But if the Nittany Lions continue to rise in the NET rankings, they may be the first team who ends up bucking that trend. If the Lions can continue to string some wins down the stretch, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. The Big Ten being as strong as it’s been over the past few seasons is part of the reason why the NET seems to love the Lions, but also, having the No. 1 strength of schedule in the country, and maybe even of all time, goes a long way in the rest of your metrics looking as good as they do.
Buckle up folks, the next few weeks should be quite entertaining.
*Or, the ones that makes them the most money.
**Or conference tournament champion.