Penn State’s exhilarating, last-second win over Ohio State was more than just a morale booster for Pat Chambers and his team. The victory finally gave the Nittany Lions something solid to put on their NCAA Tournament resume during a campaign that until now has not lived up to expectations.
However, Penn State fans know that one signature win doesn’t make a season. There’s still plenty of work to be done, and if the odds hold true, the Lions will have to settle for an NIT selection. On the other hand, being a fan isn’t very fun if you can’t get yourself to believe that a tiny glimmer of hope might blossom into something more.
Take Care of Business
Penn State’s poor performance on the non-conference slate — its best win is over Montana — means that the team has to be a little better than its NCAA bubble rivals in league play in order to impress the selection committee. Based on Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology site, some of these bubble teams aren’t too different from Dear Old State. For example, Syracuse is just 3-4 in ACC play, but it scored a pair of decent wins over Georgetown and Maryland in non-conference play. It’s a similar deal for Maryland, a team that shares a 4-5 Big Ten record with Penn State. The big difference for the Terps is their November victory over Butler and the fact that they already got a clash with Purdue out of the way.
Both Syracuse and Maryland have a chance to finish at or right above the .500 mark in league play, which means that a 10-8 Big Ten record might be enough to get Penn State in the conversation, but what we’re really shooting for is 11-7, which would require the Lions to go 7-2 the rest of the way. That’s a big stretch for a squad that hasn’t gone on a winning streak since December, but it’s something to hope for.
To get there, the Lions can’t lose anymore games to the bottom-feeders of the league. That means not slipping up against Rutgers this weekend or in a rematch vs. Iowa next week. Illinois is finally showing signs of life, and Nebraska has been quite the surprise, but these teams also fall into the “must win” category.
It’s okay to lose to Michigan State and Purdue
Both of these games are on the road and both will be nearly impossible tasks for the Nittany Lions. However, while the Boilermakers might go the whole season without losing at Mackey Arena, Michigan State’s Breslin Center has been more vulnerable. The Spartans already lost to Michigan earlier this month, and they nearly fell to Rutgers just days earlier. Plus, Penn State has history on its side with a win in East Lansing over a top-10 Michigan State team in 2009. Even so, winning just one of these games would be a huge bonus.
Defend the Bryce Jordan Center
Hopefully the upset in Columbus did a lot to excite Penn State’s fan base, because the Lions will need all the support they can muster in key home dates against Maryland, Ohio State, and Michigan in February. If we allow ourselves to assume that Penn State wins the “easy” games and loses to Michigan State and Purdue, then it’s these three games that will decide the Lions’ fate heading into Madison Square Garden. The Maryland contest might be the most crucial, since it could be bubble team vs. bubble team with Penn State needing a win to avoid the series sweep. The good news is that Lamar Stevens and company kept the first game close throughout despite a horrendous shooting night from Tony Carr.
Michigan has been playing better than expected this season, and we know that Ohio State can be beaten, but the real question is whether or not the Lions can play consistently enough to compete in all three games. With Josh Reaves back in the lineup, it will be up to Chambers to get the best out of his talented lineup before it falls out of NCAA Tournament contention.