Penn State’s 86-79 double-overtime win over Illinois at the Jordan Center Sunday may not have sent ripples throughout the national or even Big Ten landscapes.
But in Happy Valley, it was big on several fronts:
• By improving to 7-11 in the conference (16-15 overall), PSU locked down an opening-day bye in this week’s Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. This marks the first time the Lions have earned a bye in the 19-year history of the tourney. State finished the regular season as the league’s 10th seed, and will face No. 7 Ohio State Thursday at 6:30 p.m. Yeah, we know earning a bye in the 14-team B1G is much easier than the old 11- or 12-team league. But a bye is a bye.
• The seven conference wins are the most under fifth-year coach Pat Chambers. So, even though most (including us) expected this to be a transition year, the program’s slow, upward trend under Chambers continues.
• PSU assured itself of exiting the Big Ten tourney with at least a .500 overall record.
“I am so proud of this group, so proud of them … and they knew what was on the line,” Chambers said Sunday. “… We don’t have to play on Wednesday, we get to play on Thursday, and we’ve won more (league) games than we ever have in my five years here. Everybody thought this would be a kind of transition or throwaway year, and we didn't want to hear that.”
To really appreciate what Sunday’s win means, it may be best to consider where PSU would be had it lost.
The Lions would have been looking at:
• Being the No. 12 seed in Indy, and opening tourney play against a walking-dead No. 13 Minnesota outfit that only has a handful of healthy, eligible scholarship players left. There would have been basically no value from playing — nor even winning — a game against a program with an RPI in the 250 range.
• Having lost its final three Big Ten games, including ugly defeats at Michigan State and at home to Northwestern, then a heart-breaker vs. a bad Illinois team.
• Entering the tournament at 15-16. Then having to win two games (vs. Minnesota and then No. 5 Iowa) to exit with a .500 record.
“On so many levels this game was huge, right?” Chambers said. “So many levels, because you get this, you have some confidence going … into the tournament. You’ve got a little energy, a little positivity and you’ve got an extra day to rest. But they’re feeling good about themselves, and that was huge, it was huge. … There was so much for this game, so many outlying things on the outside and these guys stepped up when it counted most.”
WHY THE BYE MATTERS
Earning the bye for Penn State is not just about doing something for the first time. From a practical perspective, it allows the coaching staff to not waste time focusing on an opening-day opponent. Now Chambers and company can zero in on Ohio State.
But it goes beyond that. After a long regular season, the Lions can take it easy Monday to get their legs back.
“Tomorrow’s going to be really about rest … and get some cold tubs and re-energize our bodies, maybe do some film work,” Chambers said. “Nothing taxing. And then we’ll go back after it on Tuesday and Wednesday.”
If Penn State wins Thursday, it gets perhaps the best team in the nation — second seed Michigan State. As difficult as that would be, from this angle the odds of the Lions beating MSU after having played only one game are better than the odds of beating any of the league’s other top teams after having played two games.
BTW, had PSU fallen to the No. 12 seed and won its first two games, its Friday opponent would have been No. 4 Purdue. Last year the Lions faced the Boilermakers in a similar scenario, and led for much of the game before running out of gas down the stretch and losing, 64-59.
DID YOU NOTICE?
As noted, many thought this would be a transitional year for PSU. The Lions were going from having an All-Big Ten force in D.J. Newbill in 2014-15 to welcoming the best recruiting class in school history in 2016-17.
So how did State not only improve on its 4-14 B1G record last season, but also do so significantly?
Balance was a big part of it.
In the win over Illinois, senior forward Brandon Taylor had 21 points and 11 rebounds. Sophomore guard Shep Garner had 22 points and six assists. Payton Banks hit a couple of huge 3-pointers. Josh Reaves was an all-around dynamo (more on this later). The bench contributed 18 points.
Taylor (16.3) and Garner (14.5) both finished the regular season as double-figure scorers. And for the first time in years, there are at least six players who are willing (and able) to take (and make) shots in the clutch.
That obviously starts with Taylor and Garner. But it extends to Banks, Reaves and — of late — even reserve big man Donovon Jack. All scored in the overtime periods Sunday. And redshirt freshman guard Isaiah Washington hit a couple of clutch 3-pointers in regulation.
In 2014-15, Newbill was State’s only double-figure scorer at 20.7 ppg. And at the end of games, he often seemed like PSU’s ONLY option.
Reaves, a true freshman, missed six games earlier in the Big Ten season. The Lions went 1-5 in those outings.
Sunday was more evidence of just how much Penn State missed Reaves when he was out. He played 36 minutes, scoring 13 points to go along with seven rebounds, three blocks, two assists and two steals. His two dunks — a breakaway in the first half and an alley-oop from Garner in the second — kept the crowd of 9,104 alive.
Penn State’s 7-foot-1 center Jordan Dickerson is not exactly an assist machine. Prior to Sunday, the senior had 12 assists on the season and 21 in his career.
But in double overtime Sunday, the usually mechanical Dickerson came through with a pretty slick — and very important — assist.
On Penn State’s secomd possession, Garner missed a layup. Dickerson grabbed the offensive rebound, and in one motion whipped the ball to Banks out behind the arc. Banks hit the 3-pointer to give the Lions a 75-72 lead they would never surrender.
BY THE NUMBERS
• Penn State has finished two straight regular seasons with a winning record for the first time since the 1994-95 and ’95-96 seasons.
• Penn State blocked eight shots in the game, including four by Dickerson.
• Taylor’s eight double-doubles this year are PSU’s most since Geary Claxton had nine in 2007-08.
THE TOURNAMENT BRACKET