Penn State Basketball Has Everything To Play For Entering Its Last Four Games Of The Season
Watching the first half of Sunday’s Penn State-Illinois basketball game brought an all-t00-familiar pit to my stomach. The Nittany Lions, having won four out of five games, were playing their worst basketball in more than two weeks as they battled an underwhelming Fighting Illini squad.
Josh Reaves and Mike Watkins struggled with foul trouble, and Illinois captured nine offensive rebounds in the first half alone. Yet, somehow Penn State was able to take a lead into halftime. From there, it was all over, as the Nittany Lions held Illinois scoreless for over seven minutes to start the second half.
The 37-36 advantage at the break for Penn State turned into a 74-52 road blowout in Champaign, bringing the visitors to 8-6 in Big Ten play on the year.
It was that quintessential trap game that, at least early on, it felt like Penn State would find a way to lose. The Nittany Lions have done it a few times this year alone, and on many other occasions in the program’s history. Yet, finally Penn State was able to put its foot to the throttle in a game it didn’t play its best in, turning a sloppy first half into a highlight reel of a second half. Five of the Nittany Lions’ six dunks on the night came after the break, including multiple alley-oop finishes by SportsCenter-mainstay Josh Reaves.
All year long, Pat Chambers has echoed many of the same points of emphasis throughout every press conference. The head coach is trying to improve on growth, maturity, mental conditioning, and consistency. He talks a lot about trying to get a little bit better every day, even sometimes likening his own team to ‘a process.’
Penn State seems to have crested a hill since Reaves returned from an academic suspension. The Nittany Lions have won five of their last six games, with a very competitive loss at No. 2 Michigan State as the only blemish during that run. They’ve seen their season completely transform in front of their eyes. Penn State went from 13-8 and sitting outside of the NIT selection pool on January 20 to 18-9 and in control of its own destiny.
However, controlling its own destiny won’t be a walk in the park. In fact, this four-game stretch is one of the most difficult closes to a season that the program has ever faced. Penn State hosts No. 8 Ohio State on Thursday in front of a White Out crowd at the BJC. On Sunday, the Nittany Lions travel to Purdue to face off with the No. 6 Boilermakers.
In the final week of the season, the Nittany Lions will play host to No. 22 Michigan before traveling to Lincoln to take on Nebraska, currently the fourth-place team in the Big Ten standings.
The Nittany Lions likely need to go either 2-2 or 3-1 in these games, and then win two Big Ten tournament games. A 3-1 record with one tournament win might also be enough to get it done, while the improbable 4-0 finish would surely vault Penn State into the Field of 68.
We knew last week that Penn State had a chance to inch onto the tournament bubble, but the Nittany Lions had to hop over a few hurdles from the lower level of the Big Ten first. After taking care of business against Illinois and Maryland, it’s finally time for us to see what this team can do under pressure against top-tier teams.
The trip to West Lafayette on Sunday will likely prove to be the toughest task — Penn State has won just once (2006) at Purdue this century. Issac Haas, Carsen Edwards, and Vincent Edwards will provide Penn State with arguably its toughest defensive challenge since its game against Texas A&M in November.
Fortunately for the Nittany Lions, they’ve played some of their best defense of late. They allowed just 43 and 58 points, respectively, in wins over Rutgers and Iowa during this recent hot streak. The Fighting Illini mustered just 16 points over an entire half of play in their own gym on Sunday night.
The path is treacherous, but there could be a light at the end of the tunnel for Penn State’s NCAA Tournament hopes.