Penn State enters the home stretch of the regular season with a chance to do something it has never done before.
As difficult as this may be to believe, the Nittany Lions have never earned an opening-day bye in the Big Ten Tournament. This dates back to the first year of the conference tourney, 1998.
Of course, from 1998 through 2011 — when there were 11 teams in the league — only five teams received first-day byes each year. When the B1G expanded to 12 teams with the addition of Nebraska in 2011-12, only four teams received first-day byes.
When the conference expanded to 14 teams last season, with Maryland and Rutgers coming on board, well, landing a first-day bye became much easier. The top 10 teams are now spared from playing on the opening day, and four actually get double byes. The tournament was extended by a day, too.
But PSU finished as the No. 13 seed in 2015, and was forced to play on the opening day yet again.
However, after a brutal opening half of the B1G schedule this year, the Lions are getting something of a reprieve for the last four games. Starting with Nebraska’s visit to the Jordan Center Thursday night, three of the four games are at home (the others are vs. struggling Northwestern and Illinois). And PSU figures to be favored in all three of them (the Lions will be heavy underdogs in Sunday’s trip to Michigan State).
At 5-9 in the conference, Penn State (14-13 overall) now sits alone in 10th place (the last bye position). If the Lions win three of their final four, they’ll more than likely move up to ninth place. Even if they only win 2 of 4, there is an excellent chance they’ll hold on to 10th.
Bottom line: take care of business, and PSU will probably earn the elusive first-day bye in the Big Ten Tournament. That would be good not only to break the long streak of NOT getting a bye, but also because it would give the Lions a much better chance of doing some significant damage in the tourney.
Think back to last year, when PSU caught fire and actually won a pair of games yet still found itself a day away from the semifinals. While playing its third game in three days, it ran into No. 4 seed Purdue (which was playing its first game). The Lions led by as many as 11 in the first half and were in front until running out of steam in the final seven minutes. And that is the way the season ended.
While it is fun for the media and fans to kick around this sort of thing, fifth-year coach Pat Chambers is having none of it. He insists his team continues to approach the season the way it has all long — one game at a time.
Check out his comments above.
Oh, and FYI, the B1G Tournament is back in Indianapolis this year, running from March 9-13.
And one last thing — the only two Big Ten teams never to earn first-day byes in the tournament are Penn State and Rutgers. As noted, the Scarlet Knight just joined the conference last season.