Thursday’s loss to Ohio State likely evaporated any chance of Penn State making its first NCAA men’s basketball tournament since the 2011 season.
Sure, the Nittany Lions could go 5-0 during the last five scheduled games of the regular season or win the conference tournament. Anything’s possible, but it’s highly improbable.
No. 11 Iowa, which Penn State plays today, is one of the Big Ten’s most dominant teams. Purdue, the Nittany Lions’ next home opponent (Feb. 26) has won nine games in the nation’s deepest conference. Minnesota (March 3) has earned wins against No. 4 Ohio State, No. 3 Michigan and Iowa.
Maryland (March 7) and Nebraska (Feb. 23) are winnable games, but nothing’s guaranteed. The Cornhuskers ended a 26-game conference losing streak last week when they topped the Nittany Lions in State College.
Watching Penn State this season has been an exercise in frustration. At times, the Nittany Lions have looked like they can hang with the best in the nation.
Penn State went into Blacksburg, Virginia, to play then-No. 15 Virginia Tech in December, and left with a 20-point victory. Five days later, they hung tight with Big Ten leader Michigan, and suffered a four-point loss.
In the first meeting of the year between Penn State and Ohio State, the Buckeyes won by a mere four points in a hard-fought game by both teams.
The Nittany Lions boasts the Big Ten’s sixth-best scoring offense behind 73 points per game. Penn State only trails Minnesota, Ohio State, Michigan, Illinois and Iowa — all likely NCAA tournament teams — in the stat category.
Penn State’s problem this year hasn’t been providing offense — it’s shown itself capable of doing so when needed. Its biggest problem has been sustaining that offense for two halves.
As has been a reoccurring theme this year, those lapses cost Penn State on Thursday. After clawing back from a double-digit deficit to take a seven-point lead in the second half, the Nittany Lions’ offense went seven minutes without scoring a field goal. Ohio State used a 15-0 run during that period to nab the win.
Their defense also hasn’t done the Nittany Lions any favors this season.
As of Friday, Penn State ranks last in the Big Ten in defense. The Nittany Lions have allowed an average of 73.8 points per game through 18 contests.
As impressive as Penn State has been in its close losses, at times it has been equally baffling in losses against teams it needed to beat to make a run at the national tournament.
Michigan State, which has muddled through one of its worst seasons in recent memory, was in the middle of a 1-4 stretch when it defeated Penn State by two points on Feb. 9.
Last weekend’s one-point loss to Nebraska further highlighted those frustrations, as the Cornhuskers’ last win of the Big Ten variety came in January 2020.
The Nittany Lions might not have an NCAA Tournament bid to play for, but a few wins during this final stretch of the regular season can at least prove to players that they have what it takes to withstand adversity and come out on the winning side. Consistent, sound basketball would go a long way in making that happen.