Minnesota won. Penn State lost. Zion Williamson is currently playing basketball, so I’m going to cut this intro short and get right into what we learned.
What We Learned:
1. Minnesota has locked down its NCAA bid.
Entering Thursday’s game against Penn State, Minnesota wasn’t exactly teetering over the edge of Bubble Mountain, but it was standing close enough to at least cause an uneasy feeling in ones stomach.
With a resume dearth of quality wins (Minnesota’s three biggest scalps belonging to Purdue, Wisconsin, and Iowa) and a non-conference strength of schedule just barely inside the top 250, there was definitely reason to be nervous heading into Selection Sunday.
But in defeating the Nittany Lions, the Golden Gophers picked up its 20th win of the year and can breathe a little easier no matter what the outcome of tomorrow’s quarterfinal game against Purdue.
The Big Ten’s reputation as a deep league from top to bottom (evident by the fight Penn State put up on Thursday) will greatly aid the Gophers, as 10 wins in this conference will go a little further, even if its overall body of work is lacking a signature victory.
2. Penn State is a statistical anomaly two years running.
Last year Penn State accomplished the rare feat of finishing in the top 20, according to KenPom, yet failed to qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Sure, the Lions went on to win the NIT, but in failing to make the Big Dance despite its love from the advanced metrics, Penn State proved that the sum of its parts should have equalled more success.
Fast-forward a year later and the Nittany Lions have left many a stat nerd scratching their heads again.
Entering Thursday night’s game, Penn State — a team with a 14-17 overall record, checked in as the 38th best team according to KenPom. For context, the next closest team with a losing record to the Lions in those rankings is the Missouri Tigers at 72. For even more context, teams with a worse KenPom rating than Penn State include: Iowa, Ohio State, Minnesota, Washington, TCU, Oregon, Murray State, Belmont, Seton Hall, Xavier, and Temple — or a bunch of teams already qualified or still in the conversation for an NCAA bid.
Insanely, there are more than a few people who believe Penn State and it’s sub-.500 record deserve a chance to defend its NIT crown from last year.
Even more insane, if somehow they got into the field, I honestly think the Lions could absolutely win the whole thing again.
3. Jordan Murphy versus Lamar Stevens lived up to the hype.
Prior to tipoff, BTN highlighted the matchup between Jordan Murphy and Lamar Stevens as one to keep an eye on — and they were spot on.
The co-Big Ten All-First Team members (Stevens elected by the coaches, Murphy by the media) went toe for toe, albeit in a much different manner.
For Murphy, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a player more capable of effortlessly producing a double-double than he has during his career at Minnesota. Thursday night again was one of those games, as, despite intently watching the entire contest, I was shocked to look at the box score and see Murphy ended up with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
Stevens, on the other hand, is a player that demands your attention at all times. Against the Golden Gophers he remained the first, second, and third option for Penn State — evident by his 24 points coming on a less than stellar 9-of-25 shooting. Still, he very nearly willed the Lions into the quarterfinals, putting the team on his back for the gazillionth time this year.
Bonus — What We Didn’t Learn:
1. Penn State’s offseason remains a mystery
There are going to be A LOT of questions around Penn State men’s basketball as it enters the offseason.
The biggest one — whether coach Pat Chambers comes back for another year in Happy Valley, looks to be a rather cut-and-dry case; in short, he’ll be back.
What fans of the Big Ten and Penn State need to pay close attention to, however, is the future of redshirt junior Mike Watkins and junior Lamar Stevens. Both players retain eligibility, but whether they continue their careers rocking Nittany Lion blue-and-white remains to be seen.
Watkins hasn’t been coy about his desire to turn pro and begin earning money at his craft. Prior to his knee injury last year, he looked like someone that, at the very least, could make a rather healthy income playing ball overseas, much like now former teammate Tony Carr. It’s been a slow climb back to form for the big man during the 2018-’19 season, but during Penn State’s strong late season run, the 6-foot-10 forward looked to be closer to the player he was prior to his injury.
For Stevens, it’s a little more complicated. As things stand right now, I wouldn’t imagine anyone in the NBA advising him to make the jump to the professional ranks. As a tweener who’s 3-point shot never truly developed, what role he plays at the next level is murky at best. Now, he could decide to forgo his senior year of eligibility, knowing full and well he’ll most likely by plying his trade across the Atlantic.
Or, assuming he has his Penn State degree in hand, Stevens could entertain the idea of a grad transfer where he’d be by far one of the most attractive ‘free agents’ in college basketball. Again, this speculation is dependent on a number of factors, but moving to a higher profile program and replicating the year he had this season would certainly be a way to increase his stock in the eyes of NBA evaluators.
So buckle up Nittany Lion fans, things could get interesting rather fast.