Penn State's Path To The Dance

With wins over Illinois and Michigan State and a close 3 point loss to the soon-to-be #1 Ohio State, a lot of newly found Penn State basketball fans are starting to have a discussion about Penn State’s chances to make the Big Dance in March. Plenty will have to go the Lion’s way, but it isn’t out of the question that the Nittany Lions could find themselves in the field of 68.

So what is it going to take? Wins. Plain and simple. Every win that Penn State can get in the Big Ten is a big step towards getting a ticket to the dance. Generally speaking finishing in the top half of the Big Ten has been good enough to land in the tournament, but that has a lot more to do with the Big Ten’s depth than anything else. For Penn State to get an invitation it’s going to take 8-12 Big Ten wins. With 3 wins in conference already that means ideally Penn State will need to win 8 of their last 12 games to get them to the higher end of the spectrum, a pretty lofty number of wins, but not impossible if Penn State keeps playing at a high level.

The Basics:

While we’re talking about wins there are a few other things you’ll need to keep in mind. Penn State’s SOS and their RPI. What do those mean? SOS or Strength of Schedule is essentially a number that tells you how good the teams were that you played. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose it just matters who you play. In regards to the 2008-2009 season (NIT championship year) Penn State played bad teams out of conference and it kept them from getting into the tournament. There is a mildly fancy formula for figuring out a team’s SOS, but all anybody really needs to know is if you played anybody good.

RPI is a lot like SOS but this changes when you actually beat the good teams you play. It’s a combination of “Did you beat anybody good?” and “Did you win the games you should have?” In short RPI tell you how strong a team is. If you play a bunch of bad teams and beat them your RPI won’t be as good as if you played a bunch of good teams and won half the games. (That math is undoubtedly off, but the principle is the same.)

Where does Penn State sit right now:

Currently the Nittany Lions have a SOS ranked 10th in the nation, and a RPI ranked 57th. A lot of that has to do with the strength of the Big Ten, but Ed DeChellis did a much better job scheduling stronger teams in the non-conference potion of the schedule. While they didn’t pick up any wins against the big names (Mississippi, Virginia Tech, and Maryland) Penn State still got wins against better teams than that of the 2008 season. In comparison Penn State’s SOS and RPI were ranked 71st and 48th respectively at the end of the 2008-09 season. Assuming that Penn State can keep up the winning ways they should be in better in the eyes of the selection committee than they were 2 years ago.

You can see Penn State’s curreny RPI and SOS as well as their non-conference opponent’s results here.

What Lies Ahead:

In the Big Ten it’s hard to say that any part of the schedule is easy, but Penn State has a chance to make it out of the first 7 games of conference play with 3 or 4 wins. Considering that 5 of those 7 games were against Top 25 opponents Penn State has most likely exceeded fan expectations. The schedule ahead plays somewhat into the Lion’s favor, but it won’t be easy to pick up 8 more wins.

Home Games: (Can’t Lose *)

  • Ohio State: Senior night means it’s the last game for Talor Battle in the BJC. At this point in the year Ohio State could have their foot off the gas a little if their rankings/seeding in the tournament is mostly established.
  • (*) Iowa:Penn State always struggles with Iowa, and cannot afford to lose this game. A loss to Iowa would be crippling for the Nittany Lion’s resume.
  • Wisconsin: Bo Ryan’s squad is solid, but not as dominant as they have been in past years. This game is a big one for the Nittany Lions who really need to split the series with the Badgers.
  • Michigan: Penn State lost by 7 when they traveled to Ann Arbor but Penn State could have played a lot better in that game. Given a second chance Penn State could pull this win out and it’s one of the wins they really need to have.
  • (*) Northwestern:A pretty scrappy Northwestern team like they always are, but one that will up and beat you if you don’t respect them. Penn State needs to win this game, and ought to considering a solid history against Bill Carmody’s squad.
  • Minnesota: Tubby Smith has had an interesting run so far this year with a Minnesota team that has played good and bad basketball within the same game. No reason Penn State should lose this game which makes it a good opportunity to pick up a win. Teams like Minnesota and Wisconsin need to split their series with Penn State

Away Games:

  • Purdue: Nobody wins at Purdue. Just don’t get blown out and get home.
  • Illinois: This is a pretty big game for Penn State. Illinois has struggled to beat Penn State the past few years and Penn State is going to need some road wins to pump up their resume. You’re expected to win at home, the road wins are the big ones. This is a great chance to get one of those road wins.
  • Michigan State: Beating Michigan State twice in one season would be a huge help. The last matchup between Lucas and Battle, and the rivalry that has developed between these two teams gives this game plenty of story-lines. One win against MSU is good enough, but a second would be huge.
  • Wisconsin: Beat Wisconsin once home or away it doesn’t matter.
  • (*) Northwestern: This game comes in as a bit of a toss up because Northwestern’s season is still up in the air. Most likely this will turn into a must win, but given Northwestern’s skill, if they are able to start winning games a loss may not look as bad. Either way Penn State should always look to beat Northwestern so it’s more likely this will be a must win.
  • Minnesota: Another series Penn State needs to split. At some point the Nittany Lion’s will need to pick up some road wins. Minnesota, Illinois, and Northwestern are the best chances they have at getting this done.

In short: Penn State is aiming for

  • Needs these wins–Iowa (Home), Northwestern (Home/Away), Minnesota (Home), Wisconsin (Home)
  • And any of these–MSU (Away), Illinois (Away), Ohio State (Home), Minnesota (Away), Michigan (Home), Purdue (Away)

With some much of the Big Ten season to go a lot of this will change game by game but the blueprint is the same. Every win is huge.

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Tags: Ed Dechellis March Madness Penn State Basketball

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