The Penn State basketball team hasn't visited the NCAA tournament since 2001, when Joe Crispin and Titus Ivory led the Nittany Lions to the Sweet 16, after knocking off two-seed North Carolina in the second round. Since then, they haven't even been close to mounting a return.
This year, they have their best team since 2001, yet their work is still cut out for them. Coming into this week, their RPI appeared to be somewhere in the mid-80s, depending upon where you looked. The non-conference strength of schedule was not good at all, but the Nittany Lions appear to be making headway in conference play.
They haven't had a bad loss in Big Ten play, losing at Wisconsin and Minnesota, while dropping a home contest to Michigan State. Last night, they garnered their second quality win, and they did so in convincing fashion. Michigan has been a tad bit inconsistent lately, but they still have a very respectable RPI due to several top-notch victories. Penn State beat Michigan by 15. It was an especially important victory because the Big Ten isn't getting eight teams in the NCAA tourney, despite Tom Izzo's high hopes. That means Penn State must jump over a few of the teams ahead of them -- Michigan currently being one.
The Lions got stellar outside shooting, as Talor Battle, Stanley Pringle, and Danny Morrissey combined for 9-13 shooting from three. Inside, Jamelle Cornley was 8-9 from the paint, also garning 11 rebounds. They also played good enough defense to hold Manny Harris to a dreadful offensive line, though it should be noted they had zero answer for DeShawn Sims.
Granted, the game was at home, and PSU needs to start winning road games, This was, however, another step in the right direction, just like their Purdue victory. Ed DeChellis has the program moving in the right direction, and it only took six years! Sarcasm aside, they have to be happy with a 15-5 overall record and 4-3 Big Ten record at this point.
A very winnable game against Iowa on Saturday awaits, before the Lions will have an entire week off. After that, they have to visit both Michigan schools on the road, play Wisconsin at home, go to Purdue, host Minnesota, and head to Illinois and Ohio State. Needless to say, they better enjoy that rest period. Considering their traditional road woes (they were 2-12 in road/neutral games last season, and currently sit 4-3 this season), this will be a grueling stretch.
If you want to make the NCAA tourney, Penn State, that would be the time to earn a spot. The strength of schedule will most certainly improve. Will the record as well?