When it comes to college basketball, the season usually comes down to one big math equation, especially for teams perpetually on the bubble. Win 10 conference games and you’re sitting pretty for an NCAA tournament bid. Win 7 and you’re looking at the NIT. Win less and the season is a failure.
With each passing game, that equation looks a little more inauspicious for the Penn State basketball team.
The Big Ten is probably the most talented conference in college basketball. Six teams received votes in the most recent AP poll to be ranked, and five actually are, including three of the top five. These teams make up seven of Penn State’s final 15 regular season games.
It stands to reason, then, that Penn State should look at the unranked teams like thirsty bloodhounds, hungry to pick up winnable games in order to fill out that postseason equation. But it wasn’t to be last night against Minnesota, and who knows if it ever will be this season. Penn State hung with the Golden Gophers for the entire game, but ultimately came up short, losing 68-65 after leading for most of the second half.
This year’s Minnesota team is nothing to scoff at. Led by Andre and Austin Hollins, with some help by first-year head coach Richard Pitino, the Gophers are 13-3 and stand to do some damage in the Big Ten. But, as has been the familiar tale, Penn State couldn’t put it together down the stretch.
“We’re doing everything that we possibly game to learn how to finish games,” coach Patrick Chambers said. “It’s in their hands now.”
The Gophers jumped out to an early 7-0 lead, but some great shooting by Tim Frazier kept Penn State roaring back and put the Nittany Lions up 5 points at the half. Penn State led by as many as 8 points in the second half and held a lead (or a tie) until 2:08 left in the game. An untimely fifth foul by Frazier — both he and Chambers said after the game they, justifiably, thought it was only his fourth — and sufficient free throw shooting by the Gophers was too much for Penn State to overcome.
Ross Travis had one of his best games this season, notching 13 rebounds and 18 points, second only to Frazier’s 20 points. Neither performance was able to make up for the zero-point showing from D.J. Newbill, which saw the guard sitting on the bench for all but 14 minutes.
“We’ve got distracted minds,” Chambers said. “There’s too much distraction on this team. We’ve got to come together somehow. It’s my job to figure it out.”
What those distractions are isn’t clear, but Penn State will have a chance to pick up its first Big Ten win on Saturday against Indiana. The Hoosiers are 10-5 on the season, but 3 of those losses come against ranked teams. The Hoosiers are beatable, but it’s hard to see anyone Penn State’s roster who can match up against freshman superstar Noah Vonleh, who is averaging 11.8 points and 9.5 rebounds a game.
The NCAA tournament might already be out of reach. Too many more of these, and the NIT could become a pipe dream, too.