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NIT Bracket Breakdown: Penn State

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The Nittany Lions’ path (back) to Madison Square Garden

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Before we break down Penn State’s bracket, we have to address the elephant in the room. It sounds like Mike Watkins isn’t going to be able to come back healthy and play in the NIT. With a 100% healthy Watkins, I’d take Penn State over anyone else in the NIT field. Without him... well they did still manage to beat Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament, and Penn State won’t be playing anybody that good in the Little Dance.

First Round

Penn State hosts Temple on Wednesday night. Temple, of course, is located in the city of Philadelphia, and so I have to wonder whether Penn State, which has more alumni in the City of Brotherly Love than in State College, wouldn’t have preferred it if the Owls had hosted instead. They might have gotten more fans to come, particularly Philly-based fans who don’t get the opportunity to see their beloved Nittany Lions play very often.

But this is a home game, and it’s a good opponent for the Watkins-less Lions. Temple is a poor rebounding team, so the loss of their center may not hurt the Lions as much as it might against, say, Baylor. The bad news is that the Owls have an excellent three-point defense, and Penn State will be relying on Tony Carr and Shep Garner to hoist from long distance early and often.

If They Advance

The most likely opponent for the Nittany Lions in the second round is No. 1 seed Notre Dame. The Irish are in the opposite boat, having just gotten one of their best players, Bonzie Colson, back from Injury. Notre Dame is only two spots behind Penn State on KenPom, but with Colson back and Watkins out, Mike Brey’s squad will be favored, especially at home.

Free throws are the thing to watch for in this game. Penn State gets an abnormally low percentage of its points from the line, and the Irish are one of the best in the country at defending without fouling. It’s likely Penn State is going to have to be ten points better than Notre Dame from the field, because I expect to see a disparity at the charity stripe.

The other possibility in the second round is Hampton. The thing to know about Hampton is that they play fast, though not as fast as their MEAC regular season co-champions, Bethune Cookman and Savannah State. Those are two of the three fastest-paced teams in the country, whereas Hampton only cracks the top 30. If you think Big Ten basketball is slow and boring, you should check out some MEAC action.

The Road to Madison Square Garden

If they win their first two, Penn State would just need one more win to play themselves back to New York and Madison Square Garden, where they won the 2009 NIT. Assuming chalk holds, that win would have to come against Marquette, who boasts a pair of guards in Andrew Rowsey and Markus Howard which compares favorably to Penn State’s Carr and Garner. If these two teams meet, it will be a lot of fun.

Next, again assuming chalk, would be Baylor in Madison Square Garden. It was Baylor that the Lions beat to win their 2009 title. The No. 2 in Baylor’s region is Louisville, but reports were that the players and coaches for the Cardinals voted not to play in the NIT, but were overruled by their athletic department. I wouldn’t look for the Cards to make it to Madison Square Garden.

The championship game could be against any of the 16 teams on the opposite half of the bracket, but the most likely candidates are two teams from out west, St. Mary’s and USC. Amazingly, St. Mary’s is ranked this week, despite missing the NCAA Tournament. The Gaels were left out due to a weak non-conference strength of schedule, something the Nittany Lions know all too much about.

Overall

They say good guards are the key to success in March, and Penn State has some very good guards. Still, with the parity in college basketball this year, there might be as many quality teams in the NIT as I’ve seen in awhile, and it’s difficult to believe that Penn State can go out and win five without their starting center.

They can go out and win two, though! Like any true Big Ten fan, I hate Notre Dame, and even when they were healthy, Indiana beat them. That’s the same Indiana team that tied Penn State at 9-9 in the league. I’d be glad if the Lions won the whole thing, but if that’s too tall an order, please, Penn State—beat the Irish.