Since winning back-to-back games over Northwestern and Maryland, the latest bracket projections for Penn State have gone from having them barely on the bubble to very much on the right side of the bubble . If PSU beats Illinois tomorrow in their first game of the Big Ten Tournament, almost everything else we’ve written after this paragraph becomes moot, because the Nittany Lions will have locked up an NCAA Tournament berth. Of course, we’d all prefer to see PSU just go ahead and win on Thursday, so we’re not left with sweating it out for the next few days leading up to Selection Sunday and rooting for the following Championship Week scenarios below:
Pitt, North Carolina, and Clemson are the teams to root against, here. According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, Pitt is in the Big Dance as one of the “Last Four Byes” (just one spot ahead of PSU, who also holds a “Last Four Bye” spot), while UNC and Clemson are amongst the “First Four Out” and “Next Four Out” respectively.
Pitt faces Georgia Tech today for its second round game, with Duke up next in the quarterfinals, should they take care of business against GT. Meanwhile, UNC will face Boston College in their second round matchup and will face Virginia in the quarters should they avoid the second round upset. Clemson got a bye to the quarterfinals as one of the top four seeds, and will await the winner between NC State and Virginia Tech.
Pitt won’t enhance their resume at all by beating the Yellow Jackets, and losing to them would be catastrophic enough to put the Panthers faithful on edge leading into Selection Sunday. Meanwhile, both the Tar Heels and Tigers will likely need to make runs to the conference championship game in order to feel good about their at-large chances. So, root for Pitt/UNC/Clemson to all lose early and hope that nobody else outside of Duke/Miami/Virginia/NC State (who are all safely projected in the NCAA Tournament) gets the auto-bid.
Oklahoma State is the lone bubble team to watch for and root against, as they currently are sitting amongst the “First Four Out” in Lunardi and a couple other prominent bracketologists’ projections. The Cowboys face their arch rival Oklahoma in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, whom they should have little trouble dispatching. However, Okie State will have to get by Texas in the second round in order to have any legit chance at sneaking into the Big Dance.
There are no serious bubble teams in the Big East, so just root for the tournament champ to be amongst one of either Marquette, Xavier, Creighton, UConn, or Providence. All five of these teams are locks to make the Big Dance.
If Penn State loses to Illinois, you should be rooting like hell for the Illini to make as deep of a run in the B1G Tournament as possible. That’s because Illinois’ NET ranking currently sits at 33 and should they win enough, their NET ranking will shoot to 30 or above, which would make Penn State’s home win over Illinois a Quad 1 win, giving them six Q1 wins in total. The more Q1 wins PSU has, the more favorable the NCAA selection committee will view them.
Speaking of Q1 wins: Maryland (26th) and Indiana (29th) are also currently just inside the NET Top 30, so it is absolutely imperative that neither team loses their first game in the Big Ten Tournament, as doing so could very well drop them below 30th and thus, subtract a Q1 home win from PSU’s resume. There is a very good chance Maryland will have to face Nebraska in their second round game, the same Nebraska outfit that beat them in Lincoln just a few short weeks ago. Given how strongly the Huskers have played down the stretch, that will certainly be a game to watch.
Also, root for Michigan to knock off Rutgers when those two teams face each other in second round on Thursday. The Wolverines would need to beat Purdue in the quarterfinals on Friday to have any realistic shot at getting into the dance, and Rutgers is squarely on the bubble after losing six of their last eight to close the regular season. A loss on Thursday for the Scarlet Knights could very well knock out of the Big Dance altogether, or at the very least, prevent them from leap-frogging PSU in the pecking order.
USC and Arizona State are the two main teams to watch out for because they’ll likely have to face each other in the second round of the Pac-12 tournament. The Trojans have a bye, while the Sun Devils will play against 11-20 Oregon State. Obviously, root for the Beavers, but in the likely possibility that we get USC and Arizona State on Thursday, Penn State fans should be pulling for the Trojans. USC is on the bubble, but they are probably one of the more comfortable bubble teams. Both CBS and ESPN have them as a 10 seed, so a loss to the Sun Devils probably wouldn’t push them out of the tournament. That’s not the case for Arizona State though — they are a First Four team for both Lunardi and Palm, so a victory over Oregon State and a loss to USC should only earn them a ticket to the NIT.
Lastly, Oregon is still alive but barely. Lunardi has them as his last team for the “Next Four Out” so it would take a run to the semi-finals — picking up victories over (likely Thursday opponent) Washington State and (likely Friday opponent) UCLA — for the Ducks to really become a problem.
Mississippi State is basically in the same boat Penn State is: they are right on that “Last Four In” and “First Four Byes” line. They’ll face Florida on Thursday so Penn State fans should be rooting for Myreon Jones and the Gators to pull the (small) upset. There’s also Vanderbilt who is sort of like Oregon, where an elongated run in their conference tournament will give them a chance come Sunday. They’ll get the winner of the LSU/Georgia game — which won’t really help their resume — but then would have to face Kentucky on Friday. Hopefully, Penn State will have already picked up a victory over Illinois and we won’t have to worry about Vanderbilt too much, but the cleanest outcome would be for the ‘Dores bowing out before the weekend hits.
Boise State, Nevada, and Utah State are the three teams to keep up with in the Mountain West — and by “keep up with” I mean “root against.” All three sit in Penn State’s general territory of either being just in or maybe out with a loss, so the earlier those teams lose, the better. Boise has the winner of UNLV/Air Force, Utah State has the winner of New Mexico/Wyoming, and Nevada has San Jose State. The latter two, Utah State and Nevada, are especially on the bubble, so a loss in their first game of the Mountain West tourney would really put them in a precarious spot.
Houston is obviously in and Memphis probably is too. Of course, root against Memphis even if it’s just for potential seeding purposes, but them winning the AAC wouldn’t be “stealing” a bid. Any other team winning — Tulane, Temple, Cincy, etc. — would probably make the AAC a three-bid league which could be bad for Penn State.
It goes without saying, but Penn State fans should just want chalk when it comes to usual one-bid leagues. Fortunately, two of the potential “bid stealer” leagues — the CAA and the Summit League — saw their heavy favorites lock in their respective spots in the big dance: Charleston (31-3) and Oral Roberts (30-4).
The only other league out there that might see two bids would be Conference USA, should Florida Atlantic (28-3) lose. Lunardi has the Owls as an 8 seed heading into the conference tournament, so if North Texas or UAB or whoever rises up and takes the title, it could mean one less spot for a high-major team like Penn State. Root for FAU.