With its win over Columbia Friday evening, Penn State basketball is off to its best start since 2010. Hopping in the way back machine, that version of the then Ed DeChellis-led Nittany Lions rattled off four straight wins to begin its season before suffering a slip up on the road against Ole Miss.
Fast forward to present times and this years Penn State team is looking to repeat something else that 2010-’11 edition of the Lions accomplished by making its first NCAA tournament appearance in seven years.
Since Pat Chambers took over Penn State back in 2011, fans have been told to channel their inner Sam Hinkie and trust the process. That’s involved suffering through season after season of mediocre basketball, finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten standings year in and year out.
And unlike its NBA counterpart, there were no number one overall draft picks awarded amongst all that losing. Just the hope that Chambers was finally the right man to build a winner in State College.
But finally it looks like the Lions are done treading water and taking baby steps as they’ve compiled its most competitive, well-rounded roster to date under Chambers. Penn State’s postseason aspirations no longer appear to hinge on a miraculous conference tournament run or a clerical error come Selection Sunday.
With those aspirations, however, comes expectations. And with those expectations comes the need for a game plan that extends past the X’s and O’s on the court.
Pop quiz time! Is Cupcake Wars the name of a Food Network reality baking show or an apt description of the Nittany Lions non-conference schedule? Well technically, it’s both.
With the likes of Rider, Binghamton and Oral Roberts on the schedule, Penn State’s non-conference slate elicits a response similar to that of the Cleveland Indians roster reveal from the film Major League.
At this point, however, the schedule is what it is. Instead of bemoaning the missed opportunities to build a postseason resume during the non-conference, let’s instead figure out how Penn State can make lemonade out of these RPI killing lemons.
For starters, the Lions need everything to fall into place perfectly early next week when they take part in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn. In its first game at the Barclays Center Penn State is matched up with instate dumpster fire Pittsburgh. Assuming its able to take care of the Panthers, it’ll be in the Lions best interest to hope and pray Texas A&M defeats Oklahoma State in the tournaments other contest. From just a strength of schedule standpoint, a game with the national ranked Aggies would do wonders for Penn State’s non-conference schedule.
From there, Penn State needs to find some quality wins. A lot of that will be out of its hands, however, as the only team besides either Oklahoma State or Texas A&M currently ranked inside the KenPom top 100 on the Lions schedule is 96 ranked NC State. This isn’t for a complete lack of trying on Pat Chambers part as he did schedule games with George Washington and George Mason, but happens to be catching both in down years. If either of the George’s can exceed expectations it’ll be to the benefit of Penn State.
One often overlooked problem of scheduling so many potential pushovers out of conference is you give yourself plenty of opportunities for a resume crushing loss. Penn State has six games with squads outside KenPom’s top 200 including 346 ranked Coppin State. You read that correctly. THREE HUNDRED AND FORTY SIXTH! From a risk-reward standpoint, there aren’t a ton of net-positives that come out of winning these games. One loss in any of them, however, could be the difference between the NCAAs or the NIT for a fringe team like Penn State.
So far though, everything is falling into place the best it can for Tony Carr, Lamar Stevens, and company. They’ve handled the teams they’ve been asked to play with little doubt they’d pull out any of those games. It’ll be in there best interest to hope that trend continues throughout the rest of November and December leading into Big Ten play.
No, Penn State didn’t do itself any favors in the scheduling department. And yes, that may leave the Lions anxious come early March. But again, what’s done is done. The best thing they can do between now and then to relieve that anxiety is to keep on winning. String together enough W’s and the Nittany Lions should find themselves in the dance, cupcake of a schedule be damned.