STATE COLLEGE — Entering Year No. 9 of his tenure, Penn State coach Pat Chambers faced more pressure than ever to produce an NCAA tournament team.
The return of the 2018 Big Ten leading scorer Lamar Stevens — along with four other talented capable members of the starting five and a well-stocked bench — added to an NCAA Tournament-or-bust expectation held by Penn State’s fan base.
With seven games remaining in the regular season, the Nittany Lions have not only played themselves into a role as a contender in the upcoming Big Ten tournament, but they’ve also become one of the conference’s best chances to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
“It’s impossible to cover the story of Penn State this year and not feel good about what’s happening to the Nittany Lions,” Big Ten Network studio analyst Dave Revsine said. “It would have been so easy for them to quit along the way. So easy for players who are frustrated with the lack of victories through the years to transfer.”
Penn State (19-5, 9-4 Big Ten) rose nine spots to No. 13 in the latest AP Top 25 Poll, which was released on Monday. The ranking is the highest the program has achieved since the mid-1990s. During the 1995-96 and 1953-54 seasons, Penn State reached as high as No. 9 in the AP Poll.
The Nittany Lions are 12-1 in home games at the Bryce Jordan Center. They’re also 4-3 in conference road games. Penn State’s three road Big Ten losses are the fewest of any of the league’s 14 teams, which gives the Nittany Lions the best Big Ten road record.
“I think it’s been defending and rebounding,” Chambers said of his team’s road success. “In the last six games, we’re 6-0, and keeping teams under 31 percent (in) field-goal percentage, and we’re keeping them off the free-throw line. I think during that week we had some speed bumps, we were fouling a lot and we were putting them on the free-throw line.”
Sporting News college basketball writer and Big Ten Network analyst Mike DeCourcy projects Penn State as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. His latest bracketology has the Nittany Lions pegged to play 13th-seeded Liberty in the South bracket in the first round.
“The Nittany Lions aren’t just going to make the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to be a high seed,” Revsine said. “For Chambers, who’s pushed that rock up the hill for nearly a decade in one of the Big Ten’s toughest jobs, the hard work will be rewarded.”
DeCourcey predicts 11 Big Ten teams will play in the NCAA Tournament.
ESPN’s latest bracketology has Penn State listed as a No. 4 seed playing No. 13 North Texas in the first round in Sacramento, California.
CBS Sports, like Fox Sports, has Penn State projected as a four seed. CBS Sports predicts the Nittany Lions will play 13th-seeded New Mexico State in Omaha, Nebraska, in the opening round.
Highly-respected statistician Ken Pomeroy has Penn State at No. 15 in his ranking of 353 programs.
Penn State’s basketball program has reached the NCAA Tournament nine times. The Nittany Lions have gone 9-11 in those contests. Their most recent appearance came in 2011 when they lost to Temple in the opening round.
For all of Penn State’s success this season, Chambers doesn’t believe his team has played to its full potential. While it’s played good in spurts, he believes it’s capable of achieving more.
“I don’t know if we’ve put together a 40-minute defensive game together or offensive game when you’re just hitting on all cylinders, much like Purdue did against Iowa,” Chambers said. “I’m encouraged, and I look forward to when that day comes.”