Men’s Basketball Sneaks Way Onto NCAA Tournament Bubble
With wins in four of its last five games, Penn State men’s basketball has positioned itself to control its own destiny heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. While the NIT seems like a sure bet as the Nittany Lions’ postseason destination, Pat Chambers’ team still has enough important games remaining on the schedule that could lead Penn State into the bubble talk. The Bryce Jordan Center has yet to play host to No. 14 Ohio State and No. 20 Michigan this season, and a daunting trip to No. 3 Purdue is in the near future for the Nittany Lions.
A road game against Nebraska (who is sneakily 18-8), the fourth-place team in the Big Ten, is how Penn State, currently sixth in the conference, will close its season. With all of these high-caliber games against teams ranked above them in the conference standings, the Nittany Lions have a chance to maneuver their way into a top-four spot in the Big Ten standings and bye to the quarterfinals of the conference tournament before season’s end.
The way the team has looked recently, it certainly is very possible. Iowa scored 84 or more points in three straight games before traveling to Happy Valley last weekend, only to get dropped by Penn State 82-58. The Nittany Lions defense stifled Rutgers the weekend before, raising eyebrows by limiting Rutgers to just 43 points. An upset win on the road at No. 14 Ohio State and an impressive showing in a loss to No. 4 Michigan State have Penn State looking more competitive right now than it’s looked since its last trip to the Big Dance in 2011.
“They really stepped up from that Michigan State game, and got back to work,” head coach Pat Chambers said after the win over Iowa. “That’s growth, that’s maturity, and hopefully we can keep this consistent play going.”
You could see that maturity in the way the team began to move the ball offensively this past Saturday. Gone was the Tony Carr isolation show, as the point guard took just 13 shots on the day. Instead, the sophomore point guard tallied 16 points and six rebounds to go along with three assists, as four different Nittany Lions scored in double figures. Shep Garner came in just below that, scoring nine on the day. Penn State had 13 assists, but it felt like so much more than that. The team was passing the ball nicely, setting up a highlight reel of dunks thanks to all of the space created by the increased ball movement.
On Wednesday night, the Nittany Lions looked strong behind a standout performance from Lamar Stevens as they closed things out down the stretch against a talented Maryland team. Penn State got revenge over the Terrapins with a 74-70 win after losing to Maryland in January.
Against Maryland on Wednesday, Carr continued to let the game come to him. The guard scored 16 points once again in addition to six assists. Carr shot 5-12 on the day, adjusting his shot selection as the streaking Stevens made 10 of his 12 shots on the night.
Sometimes, the Nittany Lions need Carr to just take over games with his talent, as he did in Columbus and East Lansing. However, he’s done a much better job recently leading the team by letting the players around him carry more of the load and play bigger roles. Currently, Carr is second in the Big Ten in scoring, pouring in 19.5 points per game.
Mike Watkins and Lamar Stevens have been spectacular this season. Watkins is tied at the top of the conference in field-goal percentage, while Stevens has scored in double figures in all but four games this year.
Josh Reaves has been playing like a mad man since his return from suspension. The junior tallied 25 combined points in his first two games back, despite coming off the bench. In his return to the starting lineup against Michigan State, Reaves tallied five steals and seven rebounds. The guard had highlight dunks in the Iowa and Maryland wins, lighting up the box score with a 14-point, nine-rebound, six-assist performance against the Terps.
With Shep Garner’s 42 percent perimeter shooting and improved play over the last two weeks from the bench, the Nittany Lions are a dangerous team when they’re hot. And right now, this team is playing its best basketball of the season.
A fifth-place regular season finish, a 3-2 record in its remaining conference games, and a trip to the Big Ten Tournament semi-finals round would make Penn State a 22-12 team entering Selection Sunday. Realistically, that means Penn State would only need to knock off either Ohio State or Michigan at home, while defeating Nebraska and Illinois on the road. The Nittany Lions can afford to lose to Purdue and in one of their remaining home games against the Buckeyes or Wolverines, and would be right on the bubble.
Seven or more Big Ten teams made the NCAA Tournament in each of the past three seasons. Even though the conference is having a bad year, there aren’t a lot of great at-large choices from Power Five conference that the Nittany Lions have to compete with if they can reach that 22-win mark and finish in the top five in the Big Ten.
Before Penn State got some revenge on Maryland on Wednesday night, the Terrapins knocked off the Nittany Lions at home earlier this year in what was a quintessential “should’ve had that one” game common for Penn State basketball. However, some might argue that the Nittany Lions were victims to some home-cooking, as Maryland shot 34 free throws to Penn State’s abysmal four free throw attempts. The teams were even in the rebound column, and the Nittany Lions shot better from the field with just one additional turnover, but the free throw count was insurmountable.
If they were going to have any hopes of putting together a shocking run, the Nittany Lions had to start with revenge against the Terps, and that’s exactly what they got. While the path to becoming part of the NCAA Tournament conversation is difficult, the road to the Big Dance is still feasible if the Nittany Lions can continue their hot streak through their final six games.