Last Wednesday, with less than four minutes gone by in a crucial home game against Michigan, Penn State forward Mike Watkins fell to the ground, clutching his knee, all the while throwing a massive wrench into the NIttany Lions season.
Despite his best effort to play hero, a brief cameo later in the game showed the sophomore lacked his signature explosiveness and foretold of an injury that loomed much more serious than anyone could hope.
Those fears manifested themselves in the form of losing that contest against Michigan, only to follow it up with a bubble popping loss at Nebraska in a game that Watkins missed entirely.
Mums been the word from head coach Pat Chambers, so the extent and availability of Watkins moving forward is a giant, Empire State Building-sized question mark looming over the Nittany Lions.
And it’s because of this unknown that the postseason expectations of Penn State, both for the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAAs, look to be an example of Chaos Theory that would make Dr. Ian Malcolm giddy.
Due not only to his capabilities on all facets of a basketball court, but also the Lions lack of front court depth, whether or not Watkins is able to go will drastically impact Penn State’s chances of progressing forward.
That forces one to consider two worlds when attempting to predict the Lions future: One that involves Mike Watkins blocking and rim-rocking at Madison Square Garden, and one that doesn’t.
Entering that game against Michigan last week, Penn State controlled its own destiny to grab the 4 seed and a double-bye in New York. But after dropping two in a row, the Lions fell all the way to the 7 line and will now matchup with a Northwestern team that’s already beaten Penn State this year.
The Wildcats, however, will be limping into the Big Apple, losers of six straight, including defeats at the hands of Wisconsin, Iowa, and lowly Rutgers. A once-promising season has become a living nightmare for Northwestern as Chris Collins’ team has made losing an art form, dropping games in every which way imaginable.
Much like the Lions, Northwestern has some question marks of its own, with second leading scorer Vic Law having missed the last two games with a toe injury while senior guard Bryant McIntosh continues to battle through a bum shoulder that’s plagued him for much of the season.
On a neutral court, KenPom favors Penn State by 5.5 points. But due to all the uncertainty surrounding both teams, this is a huge stay away game from a gambling standpoint.
Trying to handicap who will win this one outright isn’t any easier though. If one of Law or Watkins happens to be able to play meaningful minutes for their respective team than I think the arrow swings towards the benefactor of whoever is on the court.
If neither of them can go, they might as well move this game to the world famous Rucker Park, as we’d be looking at a game of one-on-one between Scottie Lindsey and Tony Carr. Who wins that game? Your guess is as good as mine.
-If They Advance
Assuming Penn State can survive its game against Northwestern, they might actually find it a blessing to have avoided the top half of the bracket that would have come with being the 4 or 5 seed.
That’s because it’ll allow the Lions to avoid a game against Michigan, Nebraska or Michigan State until a potential Big Ten Championship game. If Penn State happens to matchup with any of those teams, it’ll most likely have locked up an at-large bid to the Big Dance, meaning the only thing at stake in a potential tilt with the aforementioned would be earning the teams first ever Big Ten title.
If that wasn’t enough to be thankful for its spot in the bracket, Penn State’s potential Friday evening game would be against Ohio State. If there was ever a team who would illicit the Lions to drool in anticipation, it would be this Buckeyes team who Pat Chambers has made his B-word this year.
If Mike Watkins can’t go, feel free to ignore everything I wrote above this as it won’t matter. Keep the bus running. Amend the hotel reservation. Prep the BJC for the NIT. Without big Mike the Lions won’t be sticking around long.
But if he can do his best Willis Reed impersonation at the World’s Most Famous Arena than the Nittany Lions should be one of the most dangerous teams next week. Remember, this squad was clicking on all cylinders just a little over a week ago.
When Chambers has his full arsenal at his disposal, he can run out a group of players that no one in the Big Ten will want to see. There’s a reason that Penn State’s advanced metrics jump off the pages, and it’s because the Lions are sneaky good.
Plus, for all the negatives that have been said about the conference moving the tournament to New York City, it could end up benefitting the Lions more than anyone else. MSG has historically been very good to Penn State and State College’s close proximity, relative to every other fanbase minus Rutgers, means a day trip for most students or alumni should they want to take in a game.
And the further Penn State advances in the tournament, the more those fans will start to pack the Garden.
So there it is in a nutshell. Without Watkins, Penn State will be looking back on this season and Big Ten Tournament as one of the most frustrating what-ifs in program history. But with him, the Lions will have an opportunity to do something special over the course of the next week.
For a fanbase and athletic department that has been patiently waiting for this moment, here’s hoping the sports Gods shine down brightly on Mike Watkins right knee cap. There’s a helluva lot riding on it.