One thing that comes with the territory of being a football school with a basketball problem is a limited hardwood history to look back on with fondness and adoration.
Penn State hoops is not immune to this problem, as the number of seasons that have produced banner hanging moments are few and far between.
As vintages go, the Nittany Lions wine cellar is pretty bare.
The vastly under-appreciated Jesse Arnelle led the 1954 Lions to its only Final Four, where Penn State ultimately fell to former-power-turned-current-punching-bag La Salle.
Jerry Dunn would much later guide the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance as a member of the Big Ten in 1996. Penn State’s stay in the bracket was short lived as it would fall prey to the dreaded 5 vs 12 seed matchup with a first round loss to Arkansas.
Not to be forgotten, Joe Crispin, in arguably its most magical run through the NCAA Tournament, shot the 2001 Nittany Lions to the Sweet Sixteen, upsetting Joe Forte and the North Carolina Tar Heels along the way.
Anddddddd that about sums of the programs highlights when you stroll down memory lane.
Fast forward to present times, the 2017-’18 Nittany Lions have managed to rebound from its roller coaster hot-start-turned-the-sky-is-falling season and gain some steady footing as winners of five of its last six. This in turn has warranted the few and understandably skeptical Penn State basketball fans to begin wondering whether Tony Carr and Co. can do something banner worthy this year.
Speaking of the Penn State basketball faithful, any diehards of the program probably noticed that I conspicuously left two recent and worthy versions of the Lions off the aforementioned Mount Rushmore of Penn State basketball seasons.
That’s because before considering what needs to happen over the next month to take Penn State to the 68-team Promise Land, it may be best to compare them against the programs two most recent bubble teams - the 2008-’09 NIT Champion and 2010-’11 NCAA Tournament Nittany Lions.
Despite claiming the title of “champion” the 2008-’09 Lions provide an example of a group that fell just short of NCAA aspirations while the 2010-’11 team rallied super late for a surprise bid. Looking at these two teams shows both a cautionary tale and reason for optimism relative to current expectations.
To compare and contrast, I built a modified team sheet for the 2009, 2011, and 2017 versions of the Lions. For those unfamiliar, a team sheet is what the Selection Committee uses to evaluate a schools qualifications for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. You can read more about the process and see an example of one here.
In an effort to prevent statistical paralysis, I boiled things down to just the nitty-gritty. For past years data, figures were compiled as of that seasons Selection Sunday. For the 2017-‘18 season, statistics were gathered following Sunday evenings victory over Illinois. I threw in offensive and defensive efficiency rankings because its my column and I find those numbers interesting.
Looking over the chart, the first thing that jumps out is just how poorly 2009s non-conference schedule was constructed. Cupcakes and sacrificial lambs like NJIT, New Hampshire, and Sacred Heart contributed to a sub-300 non-conference strength of schedule that ultimately spelled doom for Penn State.
Unfortunately, Pat Chambers 2017-’18 slate looks to be just as ulcer-inducing leading up to March for the Nittany Lions. The likes of Campbell, Fairleigh Dickinson and Coppin State managed to give the Lions a non-conference schedule only 11 spots better than the 2009 team whose bubble got popped.
While offensive and defensive efficiency rankings won’t have an impact on what ultimately happens to Penn State come Selection Sunday, it’s interesting to see the teams numbers stacked up next to each other.
Granted Ed DeChellis’ teams benefited from the likes of all-Big Ten selections Talor Battle, Jamelle Cornley, Jeff Brooks, and Stanley Pringle setting the tone offensively, but Tony Carr, Mike Watkins, Lamar Stevens, Shep Garner, and Josh Reaves aren’t half bad in their own right. The fact that the gap between the different eras is so wide comes as somewhat of a surprise.
Furthermore, for all the criticism he’s received, you have to tip your cap to Chambers for the onus he’s put on defensive responsibility. It shows on the court and the defensive efficiency numbers bear that out.
Diving back into reasons that should cause some concern is the oft-discussed down year for the Big Ten. In both 2009 and 2011 the conference sent seven of its then 11 schools dancing. By the most optimistic of prognostications, this years Big Ten will be lucky to get five of its 14 member institutions into the bracket.
This will shine an even brighter light on the gaps in the Lions non-conference schedule and explains why this years team has the worst RPI of the three being compared.
So that’s the bad news.
But there’s hope.
This year, the NCAA will be using a new system to rank the quality of each schools wins into one of four quadrants. Using where games were played in conjunction with teams RPIs the sections breakdown as follows:
Quadrant 1: Home 1-30; Neutral 1-50; Away 1-75
Quadrant 2: Home 31-75; Neutral 51-100; Away 76-135
Quadrant 3: Home 76-160; Neutral 101-200; Away 136-240
Quadrant 4: Home 161-plus; Neutral 201-plus; Away 241-plus.
By retroactively applying this system to Penn State’s teams of yore some trends start to emerge.
Now on first glance this looks like more bad news as both the 2008-’09 and 2017-’18 Nittany Lions are overloaded with quad 4 wins. However, its the data that’s missing that allows the Nittany Lions to pause with optimism.
Of its four remaining games, three of them (home against Ohio State, at Purdue and at Nebraska) would qualify as quadrant 1 wins, while its home contest against Michigan would slot in as a quadrant 2 tally.
And that’s before you factor in any potential run through the Big Ten Tournament, which coincidentally, is how the 2010-’11 edition of the Lions picked up two of its three would-be quad 1 wins and propelled itself to a 10 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
What this means is that this years team very much can control a large chunk of its own destiny.
It’s a rare occurrence where a team happens to be peaking as it enters its most challenging slate of games, thus creating an optimal chance at grabbing much needed signature wins.
The fact that this stretch is taking place so late in the season means any additional major steps forward should be fresh in the committees mind when they sit down to place the field.
In essence, Penn State is playing with house money the rest of the way. If they stay hot and pick up two or three more quality victories, it might just be able to overcome its atrocious non-conference schedule and in-conference slip-ups.
The 2010-’11 Lions used this game plan to make up for a nightmare inducing home loss to Maine. If Pat Chambers wants to erase the ghosts of Rider past, he need look no further than this strategy.
And if they don’t, well Penn State would be in the same place they were just a few weeks ago - preparing to watch postseason basketball from the couch.
This current season has been a hodgepodge of the good and bad Penn Staters are accustomed to when it comes to its men’s basketball program.
But despite all the hemming and hawing, the second-guessing and rehashing, it’ll come down to the coaches and players finding a way to execute to its full potential when the stakes are at their highest.
So no pressure whatsoever.
Despite what’s happened in the past, the Lions don’t posses a flying Delorean and only have control over what is yet to come.
Now’s their time to rise to the occasion. Now’s their time to leave a lasting mark.