For Penn State, the end of December always feels a little like Groundhog Day. The Big Ten schedule starts again. The games start to get tougher again. And in recent years, what looked like a promising season starts to sink yet again. Things won’t be any easier for the Nittany Lions in 2015-’16. The Big Ten still looks like one of the toughest conferences in college basketball, and with a young roster that no longer has D.J. Newbill on it, there are legitimate questions about whether Penn State can even tread water when the conference games begin.
Here's a look at the team's conference schedule.
Just like last season when Penn State started conference play with an away game against Wisconsin, the Lions have a tough test right off the bat with a road contest against Maryland on Dec. 30. The Lions lost to the Terapins twice last season and could likely have an even harder time this season against Maryland's revamped lineup. From there, things don't get much easier with another road game against Michigan before a "break" at home against Minnesota.
It's games like the one against the Gophers that Penn State will need to take advantage of if they are to have any success this season. The Gophers aren't awful, but if the Lions can't grit out a win on their home court they could easily be 0-3 in the conference with games against potential powerhouses in Michigan State and Purdue looming back to back.
Maybe the most important thing to note about Penn State's schedule is the quality of the team's road opponents. After going just 1-8 on the road in the Big Ten last season (winning only at Minnesota), things will be challenging once again for Patrick Chambers' crew. With the exceptions of Rutgers, Nebraska and Northwestern ( a potential sleeper), the rest of the Penn State's away opponents (Maryland, Michigan, Purdue, Ohio State, Michigan State and Iowa) have NCAA Tournament expectations. In the past, Penn State has been able to steal at least one game a year from a top conference team. That task will be just as daunting this season, and if the Lions can't make it happen on the road, it could be another long season for them.
Something else interesting to point out is that while Penn State will play Michigan twice, they will not play them in State College, as the two teams will meet once in Ann Arbor and again in New York at Madison Square Garden. The MSG game is a great opportunity for exposure for the program, but it may not completely beneficial since the Lions typically play better at home.
At home, the Lions schedule appears to be slightly easier though still challenging. Contests against Minnesota, Illinois, Nebraska and Northwestern are winnable, but can't be taken lightly. The rest of the slate (Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa) appears to be more challenging, but the Lions almost always play tough at home. Pulling out an above .500 record in State College would be a big deal for this team, but as always there's no guarantees.
Once again, it will be imperative that Penn State gets off to a good start in non-conference play so that its season isn't doomed once the Big Ten games start. But another 4-14 record in-conference won't cut it this season. It won't be easy, but the Lions will need to find a way to scratch out a few more conference wins to make 2015-'16 a success.