With the departure of Pat Chambers last offseason, nobody knew what to expect out of the Penn State Nittany Lions this season. And as the team prepares to enter this week’s Big Ten Tournament, that’s still largely true. Penn State is as hot and cold as anybody in the league, swinging between a team that looks NCAA worthy and mediocre.
But can Penn State get things together in Indy? Let’s take a look.
As the 11 seed, Penn State has the undesirable task of opening up Big Ten Tournament play in the slate of games on Wednesday afternoon against Nebraska. It goes without saying, but nobody wants to play on the opening day of the Big Ten Tournament, as it requires five wins in five days to hoist the tournament title. Not exactly an easy task.
_________ will be cutting down the nets Sunday? pic.twitter.com/umsMb9qEoV— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 8, 2021
Still, the opening round matchup is certainly winnable. Penn State enters the game as a significant favorite over Nebraska (73 odds to win, per KenPom) and beat the Huskers just a few weeks ago. Penn State is pretty clearly a better team than Nebraska. And if it plays up to its potential on Wednesday, it’s going to move on.
From an on-court perspective t’s a little difficult to anticipate what we’ll see out of the matchup itself. Nebraska star Teddy Allen departed Nebraska’s team before the end of the season, so the offense is going to look much different than when the teams met earlier this season. Expect Trey McGowens to carry things for the Huskers and Jamari Wheeler for Penn State. It should be a fun battle.
-If They Advance
Should Penn State beat Nebraska on Wednesday, the Nittany Lions would move on to face Wisconsin on Thursday evening. Given Wisconsin’s general resume and advanced metrics (11th on KenPom), there’s little debating a win here would be significantly more challenging for the Nittany Lions than Wednesday’s matchup. Wisconsin would almost certainly be favored by before tip.
This would be the inverse of Penn State’s first matchup. Unlike the first game where Penn State is clearly better than Nebraska, Wisconsin is clearly better than Penn State. The Badgers have five proven senior contributors and a handful of rising underclassmen. Micah Potter is a force down low and D’Mitrik Trice carries things in the backcourt. It’s easy to see why this team has consistently been ranked so high by the computers. The truth is there’s no clear reason to pick Penn State here.
With all of that said, we shouldn’t get too carried away. Wisconsin isn’t some unbeatable opponent. In fact, Wisconsin has already lost 11 times this season, including some rough losses to team like Marquette and Maryland. And while the Badgers outperformed the Nittany Lions during the regular season, the teams did split their regular season series.
Penn State would also have the advantage of already being warmed up before Thursday’s game. The Nittany Lions would be confident and comfortable, having played (and won) the day before. Meanwhile, Wisconsin will be ice cold, having been off since Sunday afternoon. Playing back-to-back games will eventually wear you out, but it takes more than two games to do it. If Penn State can hit the ground running and get Wisconsin down early, perhaps they can sneak out the upset.
If Penn State makes it past Wisconsin, it would then face three seed Iowa. This is where the Nittany Lions would really start needing some magic. Not only because the Hawkeyes are better than the Badgers, but also because you’d be asking Penn State to pull off two substantial upsets in a row. That’s just not something you can reasonably expect from a team. Iowa also beat Penn State in the only regular season meeting between the two.
After that, Penn State would likely have to get through Illinois on Saturday and either Michigan or Purdue for the Big Ten Tournament title on Sunday. Those potential matchups might be even tougher than the ones we’ve already described.
Ever since the season started, it’s been hard to get a feel for this Penn State team. The Nittany Lions will look great for a few weeks before following it up with a dud. That inconsistency has put the team in a tough spot heading into this year’s Big Ten Tournament.
An at-large NCAA bid is still possible, but it’s going to take quite an effort to get there. And things won’t be easy with a loaded bracket. The good news is the first round matchup looks manageable and Wisconsin might be a bit weaker than it looks on paper. Things will be tough, but craziness happens in March. We’ll have to wait and see what happens.