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Penn State gambling that conference play will payoff big

After a ho-hum non-conference slate, it’s all-or-nothing time for the Nittany Lions

NCAA Basketball: Penn State at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

After navigating a sub-200 ranked non-conference schedule, one filled with college basketball equivalents to the Washington Generals, Flint Tropics, and Tune Squad, Penn State men’s basketball will finally turn it’s attention to Big Ten play.

In almost any other year emerging from its non-conference slate with a 10-3 record would be cause for skeptic optimism and some ballyhoo in State College.

Things certainly looked to be headed that way after the Lions humiliated its once-proud and currently downtrodden in-state rival in late November.

But when one of its three L’s involved laying a giant egg to a MAACtastic opponent and the other two came at the expense of the only legitimate resume bolsterers among its non-Big Ten foes, suddenly things looked a little worse for wear in Happy Valley.

So while Penn State’s 10 non-conference wins look nice from a quantity perspective, it does make judging a team that continues to look good more so on paper (currently 16th in KenPom defensive efficiency) a difficult task.

That said, for a program looking to use 2017-’18 as a launching pad to postseason consistency and increased relevancy, the conference schedule should, in theory, provide a more accurate barometer of where the Lions stand on its self-defined climb.

And while the Big Ten schedule will give Penn State a chance to improve its postseason resume, the current conference landscape is shaping up to be a bit of a Rubik’s Cube where only two teams have been able to separate themselves from a muddled and middling mess.

What’s this mean for the Nittany Lions? Well with so many Big Ten teams hovering right around mediocrity the margin between being in the NCAA Tournament, NIT or out of the postseason altogether will be incredibly thin.

One or two games could end up being the difference between Penn State spending March on the hardwood or the couch. If the latter is the end result, and we’re to take athletic director Sandy Barbour at her word, it very well could mean that sweeping changes usher in a new era of Penn State basketball.

But we’re getting a head of ourselves a little. Let’s pump the breaks. With 16 conference games in front of them, the Lions very much still control its own destiny. However If they want to hear its name called in some fashion on Selection Sunday, whether that be to the NCAAs or NIT, they’ll most likely need reach the conference tournament with at least 11 or 12 Big Ten wins.

Luckily there’s a few different ways to solve that puzzle as the conference schedule features its fair share of must-wins, toss-ups, and with-a-prayer games.

Using KenPom’s handy dandy game predictor, the Nittany Lions will only be underdogs in five of its remaining 16 non-conference games. Three of those, at Maryland (+5.5), at Northwestern (+2), and at Ohio State (+3.5) are all winnable road games that should be put in the toss-up category.

The other two, however — not so much.

When the Big Ten schedule came out, I think most Penn State fans would’ve considered having to only play Purdue and Michigan State once each a blessing. So what if those games were on the road!? Go take your lumps and score your wins elsewhere in the conference.

Fast forward and that’s no longer the case.

The Boilermakers and Spartans look to be the last two chances the Lions have to score a resume defining win. That’ll be quite the tall task though as Penn State is currently a heavy underdog in both games, getting 12 points against Purdue and 14 points against Michigan State.

It would be helpful to have Purdue and Michigan State two additional times, not to mention at home, to give the Lions more punches at pulling the upset. But with only two chances and both games taking place on the road? Cue up the Madonna, it’s going to take a prayer.

On the flip side, Penn State’s schedule features three road games — Indiana, Illinois, and Nebraska, where the Lions project as slight favorites. Giving points on the road isn’t a situation typical for this program and will put Pat Chambers team in a decent position to pick up some wins away from the Bryce Jordan Center.

Want some more good news Nittany Nation? Of course you do. In all eight of its home games, Penn State is favored by KenPom. Those games run the gamut from ‘holy crap that’s a lot of points’ (favored by 10 over Nebraska and 11 over Rutgers) to ‘some points is better than no points’ (giving two points against both Michigan and Maryland).

Looking at the schedule on the whole, Penn State has four must-win games where it’ll be at least 5.5 point favorites (home for Northwestern, Rutgers, Iowa and Nebraska). On the other end of the spectrum, it’ll have three games where the Lions are at least 5.5 point underdogs (away to Maryland, Purdue, and Michigan State).

Assume those seven games all go chalk, and taking into account Penn State is already 1-1 in conference play after an early season split with Iowa and Wisconsin, it will need to go 7-2 in the nine games where they are no more than 4 point favorites and no less than 3.5 point dogs (at Indiana, Northwestern, Ohio State, Illinois, Nebraska and home for Minnesota, Maryland, Ohio State, and Michigan) to hit 12 conference wins.

So with that in mind, should Penn State be optimistic about its chances moving forward? Having so many games that could come down to a roll of the dice who really knows.

Adding in the fact that things rarely go as planned for Penn State basketball it may be best to just sit back and hope Lady Luck shines down brightly more often than not over State College. After all, it’s non-conference slate left the Lions being all-in on Big Ten play. Here’s hoping they’re able to let it ride.