Thanks to an earlier-than-usual conference tournament, the Big Ten finds itself in a college basketball purgatory typically reserved for members of the Ohio Valley and Atlantic Sun conferences.
And while the leagues four surefire NCAA Tournament selections work on navigating the rust-verse-rest paradox, two schools must prepare for a future that’s equal parts unsure and unsettled.
In any other year, Nebraska and Penn State’s status on the bubble would be decided before the confetti had been swept up from the tournament champions coronation. But with a full week until Selection Sunday both programs are left living in a pseudo Schrodinger’s cat where it’s NCAA tournament hopes are both alive and dead.
With no games left to play, all the Cornhuskers and Lions can do is root for controlled chaos where fellow bubble teams drop important games while teams safely in the field take every conference crown.
But as Tim Miles and Pat Chambers use the bye week to advocate on their respective teams behalf, any objective onlooker knows that the likelihood of both schools inclusion in the field of 68 remains an incredibly unlikely long shot.
So when you get down to it, which of the Big Ten’s two bubble teams is more likely to book a trip to Dayton and sneak its way into the Madness? Unsurprisingly that’s a complicated question to answer.
For starters, the facts and figures used by the selection committee lead to more questions than answers, thus creating a more muddled picture.
While the Cornhuskers has an advantage when looking at record, strength of schedule, and RPI, Penn State maintains a healthy margin in almost ever advanced metric. This could lead one to argue that Nebraska has had a better year on the court, while the Nittany Lions field the better team and maintain a higher ceiling.
Complicating matters is each teams record in the new quadrant system being utilized by the NCAA.
Nebraska entered the Big Ten Tournament last week in desperate need of picking up a second (and probably third) Quadrant 1 win. The opportunity was there for Tim Miles’ team, but eventual champion Michigan dispatched of the Cornhuskers in its opening game, denying Nebraska any chance to bolster its resume.
Penn State, on the other hand, took to New York with its NCAA hopes on life support and missing the services of its 6-foot-9 sophomore forward Mike Watkins. Yet somehow the Lions picked up two wins at Madison Square Garden, including its third Quadrant 1 win of the year, before running out of gas in the semi finals.
What’s puzzling about the Lions trio of Quadrant 1 wins is that they all came in defeats of the Ohio State Buckeyes. I’m not a big believer in lauding any opponent as a bad matchup, but in this case could the lack of variety get those three big wins glossed over for Patrick Chambers program?
If Nebraska finds itself on the wrong side of the bubble, it’ll have a number of missed opportunities to look back on and wonder ‘what if’. Close losses to Kansas, Creighton, and Ohio State were all Quadrant 1 wins within the Cornhuskers grasp but ultimately fall into the loss column.
The Nittany Lions have a ‘what if’ scenario of its own, but unlike Nebraska, Penn State’s revolves around the players it was missing for a number of key contests.
Junior guard Josh Reaves missed four games in the middle of the season, a stretch that saw the Lions go 1-3 including a bad loss at home to Minnesota and a near Quad 2 win on the road to Indiana. Then, as mentioned above, sophomore forward Mike Watkins was lost for all but 14 minutes of his teams last six games, resulting in a 2-4 record and missed opportunity after missed opportunity.
How the selection committee views Penn State’s 3-7 record in games were it missed a key contributor could be the crux of the conversation surrounding the Lions inclusion in the bracket.
Ultimately what separates the Lions from the Cornhuskers is how they built their respective resumes. Penn State’s 2017-’18 season darted around like a cat in the bath, while Nebraska maintained a slow and steady pace. The Lions had the higher highs, but at the same time the much lower lows.
So 700-plus words later and I’ve been able to reach only two conclusions: I have no idea which of these teams is in better shape three days out from Selection Sunday and your guess at what happens is as good as mine.