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ESPN sees Penn State as virtual lock to reach NCAA Tournament

March 12, 2011 - Cory Giger
Numerous factors would indicate that Penn State's 61-48 win over Michigan State on Saturday was enough to lock up an NCAA Tournament at-large berth, regardless of what the Nittany Lions do in today's Big Ten title game against Ohio State.

Prior to Saturday's game, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi projected the Lions to be the last team in the field of 68. Beating the Spartans likely pushed PSU up at least a couple of spots and gives them leeway in case one or two upsets lead to stolen bids for smaller conferences.

(UPDATE: Lunardi's latest projection has PSU very safe as the fifth-to-last team in. That would make it seem like a done deal.)

Penn State is 19-13 overall and 12-9 in Big Ten play (including the conference tournament, which the NCAA selection committee does consider). The Lions' RPI was 42 going into Saturday's game and probably improved a bit by beating the Spartans, whose RPI was 38.

Most importantly, Penn State won two of three against Michigan State and two of three against Wisconsin (16 RPI). Those quality wins, plus one over Illinois (46 RPI), look great on the resume.

Furthermore, if perhaps a final bid for the Big Ten were to come down to PSU and Michigan State, the Lions have a strong case because the two teams' resumes are nearly identical, plus they won two of the three head-to-head meetings.

Hurting Penn State's cause will be a poor non-conference showing with no quality wins, only three weak road wins (Indiana, Northwestern, Minnesota) during the regular season and that terrible loss to Maine (215 RPI). But three neutral-court victories in the Big Ten tourney help show PSU can win away from home.

If, as expected, the Lions do get picked for an at-large bid, the question then will be if they are one of the final four teams in the field. If so, they would be either an 11 or 12 seed and would have to play Tuesday or Wednesday in Dayton, Ohio, against another 11 or 12 seed for the right to advance and play a 5 or 6 seed.

Going into Saturday's game, Lunardi had Penn State playing USC in a 12/12 play-in contest. However, yesterday's win just may have been enough for PSU to avoid being one of the final four teams in. If that turns out to be the case, the Lions most likely would be an 11 or 12 seed but would advance straight to a first-round game Thursday or Friday against a 5 or 6 seed.

(UPDATE: Lunardi's latest projection has PSU as the last team to get a bye, meaning it would not be in the final four, and therefore wouldn't have to be in a play-in game at Dayton.)

Beating Ohio State in the Big Ten tourney title game today would guarantee a berth for Penn State, and it also could earn the Lions as high as a 9 or 10 seed. If they get in, it would be the Lions' first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2001 and just the ninth in school history ('42, '52, '54, '55, '65, '91, '96, '01).

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