Penn State’s NCAA Tournament hopes are out of reach… or are they? (Yeah, they probably are)

After another tough road loss on Saturday against Nebraska, Penn State fell to 12-14 overall this basketball season. Now two games under .500 with just five games remaining in the regular season before heading to the Big Ten tournament in Minnesota, Penn State is seeing its chance of playing in a second straight NCAA tournament fading quickly.

All hope is not lost, but the Nittany Lions face quite the uphill climb to get back to the big dance in back-to-back seasons for the first time since joining the Big Ten and the second time in program history (1954 and 1955). Penn State has five games remaining in the regular season to turn things around, and a deep run in the Big Ten championship is essential.

But let’s take a closer look to see just how much work needs to be done for the Nittany Lions in the final stages of the 2023-24 college basketball season.

The situation: Penn State is 12-14

Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

The reality of the situation is this. Penn State is currently sitting with a record of 12-14, which means the Nittany Lions need to go on a bit of an incredible run from here on out in order to make any noise for a potential spot in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this season.

Penn State has five games remaining in the regular season, including Wednesday night’s home game against no. 14 Illinois in Rec Hall. Penn State also hosts Indiana and Maryland and plays road games at Iowa and Minnesota. Penn State probably cannot afford a loss in any of these final regular season contests, but a 4-1 mark heading to the Big Ten tournament could be enough to stay afloat.

Penn State went 19-12 in the regular season last year when they reached the NCAA tournament, although the Nittany Lions solidified their push for a tournament bid with a strong run in the Big Ten tournament. Already with 14 losses, a terrible road record, and a poor showing on neutral courts is not helping the cause.

Big Ten tournament projection

Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Penn State is 6-9 in Big Ten play and currently is in 12th place overall in the Big Ten standings, ahead of Ohio State and Michigan (quite the contrast from the football side of the Big Ten). If the Big Ten tournament started today, Penn State would be playing Ohio State in the first-round matchup on the first day of the conference tournament. A win would set up a matchup with Northwestern in the second round, and Northwestern has gone 2-0 against Penn State this season.

If Penn State goes 5-0 in these final regular season games, they could move up in the seeding in a big way. They have the same number of Big Ten wins currently as Indiana, Minnesota, and Maryland and will face all three in the final stretch of the regular season, but Indiana and Minnesota currently have fewer losses (Maryland has the same conference record plus one head-to-head victory already).

Penn State made a run all the way to the Big Ten championship game last year and gave Purdue a couple of nervous moments, but Penn State may need another deep run to sniff a chance to return to the tournament.

The automatic bid

AP Photo/Michael Allio
AP Photo/Michael Allio

Let’s just put this here to address the possibility that Penn State can force its way into the NCAA tournament by winning the Big Ten basketball tournament championship. Penn State has never won the Big Ten tournament and the odds are probably pretty good they will not be doing so this season.

But yes, anything could be possible. It’s just not likely.

How wide is the gap to get in according to Joe Lunardi?

Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports
Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has updated his projected field on a regular basis, so we do have an idea of what it takes to get into the tournament in his eyes at this late stage of the regular season. Going off of Lunardi’s last teams in, just how far is Penn State from even entering that conversation?

Lunardi’s current last four teams in are Ole Miss (19-6), Nevada (20-6), Utah (15-10), and Gonzaga (20-6). Just going by record alone, Utah is the only team within striking distance of Penn State right now, but that doesn’t even take into consideration the first four teams out (and the next four teams out) that Penn State would have to catch and pass over on the way up.

Lunardi currently has six Big Ten teams in his bracket.

Joe Lunardi's first four teams out

Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Before climbing into the last four teams in discussion, Penn State first needs to ascend to the first four teams out picture. And that is also a bit of a tough task as well. Lunardi’s first four teams out at the moment are Wake Forest (16-9), Providence (17-9), Seton Hall (16-9), and Cincinnati (16-9). Not one of those teams has hit 10 losses this season, while Penn State is already up to 14. That clearly does not bode well for the Nittany Lions.

Lunardi’s next four teams out are St. John’s (14-11), Villanova (14-11), Colorado (17-9), and Memphis (18-7). As such, the tournament hopes for Penn State seem unattainable barring a surprising finish to this regular season and Big Ten tournament.

You can't spell Nittany without N-I-T?

Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

With hopes of a return to the NCAA Tournament all but evaporated at this point, perhaps the next thing to look at is the NIT. Penn State has history in the NIT but even these Nittany Lions may need to have a strong finish to make it to this year’s NIT field.

A total of 32 teams are invited to the NIT, so Penn State could end up working its way into the NIT picture with a few more wins this season. Ending the year with a winning record is essential though, so Penn State has some work to do down the stretch.

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Story originally appeared on Nittany Lions Wire