The Penn State basketball program developed late regular-season momentum before losing three games to end the season. The Nittany Lions’ chances as a “bubble” NCAA Tournament contender require success in the Big Ten Tournament.
Penn State enters postseason action as the No. 7 seed among conference contenders, qualifying for a first-round bye. The Nittany Lions (19-12, 9-9 in Big Ten) battle No. 10 Northwestern (15-15, 6-11) Thursday at 6:30 p.m. ET at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
A breakthrough moment is possible for Penn State coach Pat Chambers, but a challenge looms. Here’s a look at what lies ahead for Nittany Lions basketball this week.
What’s at stake for Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament?
Penn State has an opportunity to springboard into NCAA Tournament contention for the first time since 2011. However, those odds took a hit when the Nittany Lions stumbled down the stretch.
Credit accrued from the four-game win streak that started Feb. 3 gave way to frustrating defeats that deflated Penn State’s “bubble status” in tournament projections. The Nittany Lions wrapped up the regular season with losses to Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska, and each of those opponents earned a top-5 seed.
Penn State’s No. 7 seed is its highest in Big Ten tournament play under the direction of Chambers, who already has clinched his winningest season since arriving in Happy Valley seven years ago. The team has made strides this winter, but is it ready to make a major leap in March?
What does Penn State need to do to clinch an NCAA Tournament berth?
A win in any of its final three games would have alleviated some of the pressure on Penn State, and two victories would have created quite a rosy outlook for NCAA Tournament fortunes. Those losses leave the Nittany Lions teetering on the brink and likely require a run to the tournament title game at the very least.
Penn State split a pair of regular-season matchups vs. Northwestern. The Nittany Lions prevailed, 78-63, on Jan. 5 at home, but the Wildcats responded with a 70-61 victory on their home court only two weeks later.
If Penn State can avoid an upset Thursday night, a quarterfinal game vs. Ohio State awaits Friday evening. The Nittany Lions swept the Buckeyes in two regular-season games.
BUZZER-BEATER: The scene from Columbus as Tony Carr's last-second game-winning shot goes in, leading @PennStateMBB to 82-79 UPSET over #13 #OhioState. @WJACTV (assist to @RMetzgerWTOV9 on low-angle vid) pic.twitter.com/7zarvwYMY0
— Jordan Conigliaro (@JordanC_WJAC) January 26, 2018
How did Penn State get here?
Inconsistency defined a large portion of Penn State’s season as the Nittany Lions failed to win consecutive games between Dec. 19 and Jan. 27. That pattern ended with a 6-1 run that boosted the team’s NCAA Tournament hopes, but the three-game losing streak placed that opportunity in great peril.
Penn State is led by guard Tony Carr, who paces all Big Ten players with 19.9 points per game. He averages nearly 5 assists per game and connects on 45.8 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Lamar Stevens averages 15.3 points per game but has the ability to elevate production to No. 1 scorer status. He totaled 30 points in Penn State’s win over Northwestern and surpassed 20 points in 8 games as a sophomore.
Mike Watkins, another sophomore forward, ranks third among Nittany Lions in points per game (12.1) and led Penn State in rebounds (8.9) and blocks (2.3) per game. His health will be key entering the tournament; Watkins is dealing with a right leg injury that kept him out of the regular-season finale.
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