On paper, Penn State has a simple equation as it heads for Chicago for the Big Ten tournament. Beat Illinois, and the Nittany Lions have probably done enough to reach the NCAA tournament.
But of course, it isn’t that simple. Bid thieves abound this time of year, and if enough show up, the Nittany Lions will have to do more. Getting one win over Illinois should seal the deal, but only if other conferences cooperate by having the right teams win.
Given Penn State’s precarious position, it isn’t just bid thieves the Nittany Lions have to worry about. Every other team on the bubble could be battling Penn State for a spot. Out of about 25 teams on the bubble, only about 10 will hear their name on Sunday. For Penn State to be in that group, it must take care of business and get some help.
Here’s how things look around the country and who the Nittany Lions want to win for their own NCAA hopes.
Virginia could do Penn State a lot of favors by reaching the ACC semifinals. North Carolina and Clemson both need at least one more good win to qualify. The ACC bracket means that win would have to come against Virginia. The Cavaliers aren’t playing great right now, but they have bested both in the regular season. If Tony Bennett’s team can stay disciplined, it can end the Tar Heels’ season. That’d be a big relief for Penn State to see Carolina fall off the bubble.
Pitt could also go home early, which would help Penn State’s chances. As the No. 5 seed, the Panthers potentially draw a nasty opening round game. They could face a Florida State squad that beat them in Pittsburgh. The Seminoles are talented but flawed, and they’re a pure landmine. A win doesn’t help Pitt’s profile; a loss would badly damage it. Penn State’s ideal scenario is for the Seminoles to take out Pitt and then lose to Duke, as the Blue Devils are certain to qualify.
Houston, hello. There are far worse places for Penn State to be than counting on the No. 1 team in the nation to do its job. Penn State is also fine if Memphis wins the tournament, as Penny Hardaway’s group is probably already in regardless.
The outcome the Nittany Lions can’t have is an underrated Tulane getting hot and stealing the bid. The Green Wave have no shot without the automatic bid, but they have already beaten Memphis. They’re good enough to pull a 1-in-100 upset over Houston if they get the chance. Penn State really needs a Houston-Memphis final. Anyone below Tulane’s No. 3 seed would also steal a bid.
There isn’t much for Penn State to worry about in Kansas City. The Nittany Lions just cannot have Oklahoma or Texas Tech win the conference tournament. As long as Texas reaches the conference semifinals (by taking out Oklahoma State or Oklahoma), nothing here should hurt Penn State. West Virginia is probably already safe, so a Mountaineers loss to Texas Tech wouldn’t do the Nittany Lions much good.
This couldn’t be more simple. With no bubble teams in the Big East, any upset winner is bad for Penn State. The Nittany Lions’ rooting interests are simple: anyone who plays in New York on Wednesday is a problem; anyone who had a bye until Thursday is an ally. Marquette, Xavier, Creighton, Connecticut or Providence winning would all be good news for the Nittany Lions.
Micah Shrewsberry already cheers for Purdue whenever the Boilermakers aren’t playing Penn State. Friday morning will be nothing new for him; Purdue can put either Michigan or Rutgers on life support by not losing its first game in Chicago. Iowa can also help the Nittany Lions by taking out Wisconsin, or Ohio State could do it for them.
As far as the Nittany Lions themselves are concerned, one win in Chicago probably seals an NCAA bid, two wins definitely locks it up. There’s one exception: if Penn State’s semifinal opponent is Nebraska. The Cornhuskers are playing well enough to win five games in five days and steal the automatic bid. Penn State cannot let that happen; if it’s playing the Huskers on Saturday, it must win that game.
Penn State really needs somebody to beat North Texas. Penn State also needs nobody to beat Florida Atlantic. North Texas sits second in this league, and the Mean Green could snag an at-large bid if they reached the conference final and lost to Florida Atlantic. The Owls look pretty safe with their resume, so Penn State must pull hard for them to win this tournament.
An FAU loss likely makes this a two-bid league. The Nittany Lions’ ideal outcome is for Florida Atlantic to romp to the title over someone not named North Texas. If that happens, C-USA only gets one bid.
The easiest thing for Penn State is for San Diego State or Boise State to claim the automatic bid. Utah State winning it wouldn’t be the worst thing either. The Aggies are probably close enough with their NET ranking that Penn State doesn’t want to compete with them for an at-large bid. Anyone lower than No. 3 seed Utah State winning the Mountain West could be a problem.
Once again, Penn State wants chalk. Any of UCLA, Arizona or USC winning the Pac-12 tournament would be just fine with the Nittany Lions. They could also get some help from Oregon State. If the Beavers take out Arizona State in round 1, the Sun Devils are probably cooked. Oregon has the cleanest path to stealing a bid as the No. 4 seed; Penn State needs UCLA to put an end to the Ducks’ hopes.
The three teams Penn State wants to see lose early are Florida, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. The Commodores represent the bigger threat: they’ve ripped off eight wins in nine games since a 57-point loss at Alabama. With wins over Kentucky and Texas A&M, Vandy could steal a bid without winning the tournament. Florida needs to win the SEC tournament to qualify, so Penn State would love to see Alabama send the Gators packing.
However, the Gators can do the Nittany Lions a favor by first beating Mississippi State before losing to Alabama. The Bulldogs are on the bubble and the Gators aren’t, so a Florida win on Thursday helps Penn State’s cause. After Friday, however, the Nittany Lions don’t want to see the Gators stick around in Nashville.
Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s took care of business Monday night in the WCC tournament, besting San Francisco and BYU in the conference semifinals. Both the Bulldogs and the Gaels are locks to qualify for the NCAA tournament, so Penn State can breathe easy here. Regardless of who wins Tuesday, there will be no bid thief from this league.
Of course, Penn State could make this all moot by cutting down the nets on Sunday in Chicago. But if that doesn’t happen, these games will matter. The best thing the Nittany Lions can do is get a win Thursday and give themselves one more positive talking point.