Penn State has not made the NCAA Tournament since 2011 and has been in the basement of the Big 10 standings for the majority of that time, but there is reason for hope in State College. Last year the Nittany Lions had their best recruiting class in years, in part because of how highly rated the recruits were, and also because they were finally able to recruit from Philadelphia, a major metropolitan area that is close by and contains tons of high school talent.
Now the core of their team has a year of experience under their belt and look poised to make real improvements this year, and there is legitimate reason to think they could make the NCAA Tournament. There seems to be a clear top four in the Big 10 with Michigan State, Purdue, Minnesota, and Northwestern ranked in the AP top 25, but the fifth spot appears to be up for grabs. ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) has Penn State as the 64th best team in the country, and has them favored in 10 of their 18 conference games. Assuming that the BPI holds in all of their conference games, they will have a 10-8 record which last year would have been good for a four way tie for fifth place. Of those four teams, three went to the NCAA tournament. So a tournament bid seems within their reach but here are some things that need to happen for Penn State to go dancing.
Impress in the non-conference
The Nittany Lions began last season by losing at home to Albany, which in all fairness is a team that had made the NCAA tournament in three of the previous four seasons, but they have to be much better this year. They have a very weak nonconference schedule with only two “major conference” opponents, two true road games, and no games against teams in the preseason AP top 25 other than a possible matchup with Texas A&M in the Legends Classic. They will need to win most of these non-conference games and win them impressively if they’re going to have a tournament-worthy resume.
Don’t lose to Rutgers at home
If PSU is going to have any chance at a winning record in the Big 10 the most important thing for them is to beat all the teams they’re supposed to beat. Rutgers had only one road win in the Big 10 last season and it came against Penn State. That is the kind of game that is an absolute “gimme” to every other team in the conference. If Penn State is going to have any chance of breaking into the middle of the pack in the Big 10, they need to beat the bad teams.
Win the close games
They had a 6-12 record in conference play last season, but had six losses of four points or less, two of which were in overtime, and only two wins by the same margin. If those results had been swapped last year (6 wins and 2 losses) Penn State would’ve had a 10-8 record in the Big 10 instead of 6-12 and twelfth in the conference standings.
Tony Carr has to be better
Their point guard and highest ranked recruit (42nd in ESPN 100 class of 2016) in years has to be the closer that helps them win close games. He led the team in scoring last year with 13.2 points per game but was hardly efficient shooting just 37.7% from the field. He’s already gotten off to a good start this year with a near triple double including 33 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists in their season opener. He is already the best player on this team but will need to be great in order to make them nationally relevant.
Give the ball to Shep Garner
Last year Penn State was 12th in the Big 10 in team 3-point shooting percentage which is on par with their 12th place finish in the conference standings. Much of the responsibility of hitting from deep will fall on the shoulders of Shep Garner. He is their best returning 3-point shooter, shooting 35.7% last year, and is really their only spot-up shooter this year with Payton Banks transferring. He will likely need to up both his shooting percentage and his shooting volume in order to help an offense desperate for floor spacing.