Perhaps no Big Ten team has improved more over the course of the season than the Penn State Nittany Lions. Despite an 0-10 start to Big Ten play, Penn State now enters the Big Ten Tournament having won 7 of the team’s last 10 games and the Nittany Lions have been one of the nation’s most efficient teams over the last month.
But can the magic continue in the Big Ten Tournament for the Nittany Lions after the hot finish to the regular season? Let’s take a look.
As the 10 seed, Penn State will tipoff play in the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday against Minnesota. It figures to be a really intriguing team between two of the league’s more talented, but inconsistent units. The Gophers also seem likely to make the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team, but could use another win to solidify things.
Despite the fact that Penn State is the lower seeded team, KenPom actually favors the Nittany Lions in the team’s opening round matchup. Penn State is slotted as a one-point favorite with 53 percent odds of making it past Minnesota.
By any stretch, this is a game that Penn State can absolutely win. The team is favored and has undeniably been playing better over the last month. The Gophers won the only regular season meeting between the two, but have lost three of five heading into the postseason.
This matchup will likely come down to some of the younger guards in the backcourt for both teams. How do Myles Dread and Jamari Wheeler perform for the Nittany Lions and what can Gabe Kalscheur do for the Gophers? Expect a tight matchup.
-If They Advance
Should Penn State take care of business on Thursday, it will move on for a matchup against Purdue on Friday evening. Given the fact that the Boilermakers won the Big Ten’s regular season title and have only lost two games over the last two months, there’s no denying that this would be a difficult matchup for the Nittany Lions.
However, Purdue is far from unbeatable. The Boilermakers lost to Minnesota last week and nearly lost to Penn State when the two teams played in late January. Purdue also lost to a mediocre Notre Dame team in non-conference play and could have easily lost to underwhelming teams like Indiana and Nebraska last month as well.
It’s also important to once again emphasize how well Penn State has been playing over the last five weeks. if you look at the advanced stats since Penn State beat Northwestern on February 4th, it’s jaw dropping. Per TRank, Penn State ranks eighth (!!!) nationally in team efficiency since beating the Wildcats for the team’s first Big Ten win. That’s above teams like Duke, Houston, Michigan State, and Tennessee.
Should Penn State get past Purdue, it would then likely face Michigan on Saturday. These two met twice during the regular season, splitting the series. Michigan won in Ann Arbor, but Penn State came back with a shocking upset in February that really got things going for the Nittany Lions.
While Penn State would be an underdog against the Wolverines, it would absolutely have a shot of moving on to Sunday. Michigan has been inconsistent over the last month and the Nittany Lions already beat them once.
After that, Penn State would likely be looking at either Michigan State or Wisconsin in a potential championship game. Those three teams are all ranked above Penn State on KenPom, so things would be getting even tougher at that point.
Since beating Northwestern in early February, Penn State has been on an absolute roll. The Nittany Lions are playing at an extremely high level and are trending in the right direction heading into the postseason. This is a team nobody wants to see on their side of the bracket in Chicago.
However, Penn State will have some major challenges ahead of it if it’s going to make it deep into the Big Ten Tournament. A desperate Minnesota will be standing in its way on Thursday and then Purdue thereafter. A top 10 Michigan team would also likely follow the Boilermakers.
All told, Penn State has the best shot at advancing out of any double-digit seed in this year’s Big Ten Tournament. But can the team keep the magic going? We’ll find out soon.