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Bubble talk: Lions’ path to reaching NCAA tourney

Photo by Indiana Athletics: Izaiah Brockington

Welcome to February, when bubble talk really starts to heat up. Most years, Penn State has been long gone from the bubble discussion once the calendar turned to February, but this year the Nittany Lions are still very much in play.

But how? They’re only 6-7 overall, and just 3-6 in the Big Ten. How can a team with a losing record and three games under .500 in its league be on the bubble?

Good questions, and in most situations, that team wouldn’t be bubble worthy.

Here’s everything you need to know about where the Lions stand right now:

**Penn State is not in the field of 68 for bracketologists Joe Lunardi of ESPN or Jerry Palm of CBSSports. Palm doesn’t have PSU in his first four out. Lunardi does a first four out and next four out, but he hasn’t updated either since PSU beat No. 14 Wisconsin on Saturday. The guess here is that victory will bump the Lions into the next four out when Lunardi updates.

UPDATE: As you can see below, Lunardi does indeed have PSU in the next four out in his latest projections from Feb. 2.

**PSU is No. 29 in the NCAA NET rankings. That is, quite frankly, amazing. Again, at 6-7 overall and 3-6 in the Big Ten, the Lions are considered the 29th best team in the country, according to the NCAA’s official tournament evaluation tool. You have to go all the way down to No. 74 Kentucky to find another team with a losing record.

**OK, so why is Penn State so highly rated? The Lions have three very good wins over VCU (No. 43 in NET), Virginia Tech (No. 31) and Saturday’s victory over Wisconsin (No. 18). The win over Virginia Tech was on the road, which tacks on even more value. PSU also has no bad losses.

**The Lions also have played the No. 1 toughest schedule in the nation, a big factor and something that makes the 6-7 record not look so bad.

**This one hurt BADLY: Penn State was up 70-62 with 8 minutes to go at Ohio State, only to lose, 83-79, in the closing seconds. The Buckeyes are No. 12 in the NET. Had the Lions held on and won that game, it would have been massive — not just a win over a top 15 team, but a ROAD win to boot. Penn State’s NET ranking probably would be about 20-24 had it won that Ohio State game. The overall record would be 7-6 and the Big Ten record 4-5. Quite simply, the Lions almost certainly would be in the field of 68 right now had they won at Ohio State.

**But they didn’t. So, they are on the outside looking in.

**Alright, so now what? What does Penn State have to do to get into the tournament? There are nine Big Ten games left. I believe PSU can get into the dance by finishing 8-10 in the Big Ten, because it already has some excellent wins and would get two or three more if it can go 8-10. One caveat here, though, is that the Lions probably would still need to win at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament, as well. That would assure them of no worse than a 9-11 record against Big Ten competition, and that along with the rest of the resume should be enough.

**So, let’s look ahead and figure out a path to 8-10. This is the rest of PSU’s schedule, plus the Lions’ current odds of winning each game, according to ESPN’s Matchup Predictor. NOTE: This is assuming Penn State’s postponed home game against Michigan is not rescheduled. The Wolverines are on a two-week COVID pause, and PSU can dodge a big bullet if indeed it doesn’t have to play the Wolverines again.

The remaining schedule

–Feb. 2: at Wisconsin (20.8 percent chance to win). The Lions just beat the Badgers, but look for this one on the road to be a loss, dropping PSU to 3-7 in the Big Ten. If so, Penn State would need to go 5-3 the rest of the way.

–Feb. 5: vs. Maryland (63.4 percent). Must-win game at home. 4-7 with a victory.

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–Feb. 9: at Michigan State (49.8). Yes, you’re seeing that right. Penn State has a 49.8 percent chance to win at Michigan State. That’s because the Spartans simply aren’t very good right now. If PSU can get a win, that would be 5-7.

–Feb. 14: vs. Nebraska (84.7 percent). Huskers are 0-5 in the league. CANNOT lose this game. 6-7 record, and all of a sudden, 8-10 seems very doable.

–Feb. 18: vs. Ohio State (39.6 percent). This will be a tough game. I know PSU nearly won in Columbus, but the Buckeyes are really good. I’m gonna give Lions a loss, dropping to 6-8.

–Feb. 21: at Iowa (12.6) percent. A loss, now 6-9.

–Feb. 26: vs. Purdue (54.2 percent). Gotta win. 7-9.

–March 3: vs. Minnesota (65.6 percent). A win here would get to the magic 8. So 8-9 in Big Ten.

–March 7: at Maryland (48.5 percent). A victory would lock up an NCAA berth at 9-9 in the league, but I’m going with a loss here, meaning PSU would still have to sweat it out a bit on Selection Sunday. 8-10 in league.

So, there you have it. There’s a path to the NCAA Tournament, which likely would result in the Lions playing in a First Four game. There’s probably some wishful thinking in there, because winning ANY Big Ten game is difficult.

But hey, I’m telling you there’s a chance.

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Cory Giger is a 15-year veteran of the Penn State beat and a journalist with 28 years of experience. He has won more than 100 state and national journalism awards during his career, plus he's a voter for the Heisman Trophy in football and Wooden Award in basketball.

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