After a enthusiastic 73-58 pounding of Michigan on Tuesday, the Penn State basketball team finds itself in unfamiliar territory. The team is 15-5 on the season and 4-3 in the Big Ten Conference.
Both of those win totals are comparable to many of the Nittany Lions' last few full seasons. In what has become the best season for the Big Ten in a number of years, the Lions are right there with the conference's best.
Penn State has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2001. They have only even made the NIT Tournament once since 2001, when they barely qualified in 2006.
With 15 wins already, the NIT seems to be a lock for PSU at this point in the season. But with the success they have had, the Lions and their fans are greedy for the more illustrious tournament at season's end.
Here's how I see it:
Penn State will most likely need 11 wins in Big Ten play to have a legitimate claim at the NCAA Tournament. This would put them at 22-11 to finish the regular season with an 11-7 mark in the Big Ten.
This record would also most likely give the Nittany Lions a bye in the Big Ten tournament and in the No. 4 vs. No. 5 match-up on the second day. A win in that game would seal the Lions' NCAA berth. A loss might leave them to sweat it out on the bubble.
Anything above 11 conference wins and I believe that PSU will have to be considered a lock for the Big Dance.
So can Penn State actually get to 11 conference wins? Here is their remaining schedule, with some notational marks:
Jan. 24: vs Iowa, W
Feb. 1: at Michigan State, U
Feb. 5: at Michigan, M
Feb. 8: vs Wisconsin, M
Feb. 11: at Purdue, U
Feb. 14: Minnesota, M
Feb. 18: at Illinois, U
Feb. 24: at Ohio State, M
Feb. 28: Indiana, W
Mar. 3/4: Illinois, M
Mar. 7: at Iowa, W
The games marked with W's are the games that Penn State should win. The games marked with M's are games that Penn State has a very legitimate chance at winning. The U is used for games which Penn State will find it very difficult to win.
If the Nittany Lions can win all the "W" games, that will put them up to seven conference wins.
That leaves five "M" games and three "U" games. Even if they don't win any of the "U" games, PSU only needs to win four of the "M" games to reach 11 Big Ten wins.
Three of the "M" games come at home, where the Nittany Lions have been especially tough this season. If PSU can win all of those, then they will be up to 10 conference wins.
Then they just need one more win between two "M" games and three "U" games. While there is certainly a long way to go, I have to say I like their chances. At the beginning of the season, I think everyone involved with the PSU program would take their results up to this point in a heartbeat.
The last time Penn State made the March Madness tournament, they reached the Sweet 16 by upsetting No. 2-seeded North Carolina in the second round. If this team can continue their good play and reach the tournament, they could be dangerous to advance a few rounds as well.