PSU has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2001. Until now, the Nittany Lions have not even been close to the show in Ed DeChellis' six seasons at the helm.
Before worrying about NCAAs, though, Penn State must face the Illini Thursday night and then cap the regular season at Iowa Saturday. And both of those games will help determine where the Lions are seeded at the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis next week.
By our calculations, PSU (20-9, 9-7) can finish as high as second in the conference or as low as eighth. Since the first five seeds earn first-round byes at Big Tens, landing one of those spots (which the Lions have never done) is obviously a key for teams with tournament title hopes.
As of this writing, Penn State was the only team in the conference with two regular-season games remaining. So we thought it would be a good idea to break down the different scenarios that could unfold for the Nittany Lions, and how they would impact the team's seeding for the Big Ten Tournament.
THE STANDINGS NOW
1. Michigan State, 14-3 (vs. Purdue Sunday)
2. Illinois, 11-6 (@ PSU Thursday)
3. Purdue, 11-6 (@ MSU Sunday)
4. Penn State, 9-7 (vs. Illinois Thursday, @ Iowa Saturday)
5. Minnesota, 9-8 (vs. Michigan Sarturday)
6. Ohio State, 9-8 (vs. Northwestern Sunday)
7. Wisconsin, 9-8 (vs. Indiana Sunday)
8. Northwestern, 8-9 (@ OSU Sunday)
9. Michigan, 8-9 (@ Minnesota Saturday)
10. Iowa, 4-13 (vs. PSU Saturday)
11. Indiana, 1-16 (@ Wisconsin Sunday)
IF: Penn State wins its final two games.
THEN: The Lions will be at least the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten tournament with an 11-7 record.
WHY: Because the Lions would be tied with the Illini in the conference, and PSU would hold the tiebreaker based on head-to-head record (2-0). In this scenario, PSU could climb as high as second place in the conference if Purdue loses at Michigan State Sunday.
That would give the Boilermakers an 11-7 mark, too, and the Lions would have the best overall record in the three-way tie (3-1).
IF: Penn State splits its final two games.
THEN: The Lions will be 10-8 in the conference and need some serious help to earn a first-round bye at Big Tens.
HERE IS WHY: There figures to be a logjam of teams at 10-8. Right Now, Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin are all 9-8, and all have what seem to be winnable home games this weekend (Minnesota vs. Michigan, Ohio State vs. Northwestern, Wisconsin vs. Indiana).
The only team of that group Penn State holds a tiebreaker edge over is Minnesota (even up head to head, but PSU has a better record against the top team in the league -- MSU). Unfortunately for the Lions, if PSU, Minnesota, and Ohio State and/or Wisconsin are tied for fourth, the Gophers get the spot based on best overall record against the teams that are tied. Then Ohio State and/or Wisconsin would both hold tiebreaker edges over the Lions because they both have better marks against the group.
So if Penn State splits and finishes 10-8, it will need at least two of the three teams currently 9-8 to lose home games this weekend if it hopes to finish fourth or fifth in the conference.
In this scenario, PSU could finish as high as fourth if all three 9-8 teams lose this weekend or if Ohio State and Wisconsin lose and Minnesota wins (remember, the Lions hold a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Gophers). Don't bet on that happening.
IF: Penn State loses its final two games.
THEN: The Lions have no shot at a first round bye and will likely finish seventh or worse in the conference.
HERE IS WHY: As was stated earlier, all three 9-8 teams end with home games in which they will be favored. And in practically any multiple-team scenario involving these teams, Penn State comes out last or next to last.
If Penn State loses its final two, an incredible scenario could unfold if somehow Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin all lose this weekend, too. It would leave six teams tied for fourth place at 9-9, with Michigan and Northwestern joining the mix.
If that happens, the teams will be seeded as follows based on record among each other: 4. Wisconsin (5-3); 5. Michigan (5-4); 6. Minnesota (5-5); 7. Ohio State (4-4); 8. Northwestern (4-5), 9. Penn State (3-5).