When Big Ten basketball writers made Penn State a near-unanimous pick to finish at the bottom of the conference back in October, the decision didn't come as much of a surprise, as the Nittany Lions are replacing four senior starters and breaking in a new head coach, Patrick Chambers.
After a 5-1 start with the sole defeat coming at the hands of No. 2-ranked Kentucky, however, the future doesn't seem quite so bleak for captains Tim Frazier, Billy Oliver, Cammeron Woodyard and co. The Lions need just 11 wins in their final 27 games, including the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, to assure themselves a .500 record and postseason eligibility.
At this point, it's still hard to get too excited about the possibility of a trip to the NCAA Tournament for a second consecutive season, as Penn State has no quality wins to speak of to go with an 85-47 beat down against the mighty Wildcats and all the aforementioned negatives. The National Invitational Tournament is starting to loom a bit larger on the radar, though, barring a total collapse over the next three months.
But to have hopes of making either tournament, the team's next three games against St. Joseph's, Boston College and Mississippi will be crucial. Both the Hawks and Rebels currently sit in the RPI top 100, according to RealTimeRPI.com, and the Eagles hail from the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference.
The only real threat remaining in the non-conference after this trio is a trip to 2-2 (No. 75 RPI) Duquesne on December 10. Lafayette, Mount St. Mary's and Cornell all own RPI ratings of 142 or greater, meaning they're must-wins if Penn State is to make a tournament.
If Penn State can pick up two wins in these next three games, a 10-3 or even 11-2 start heading into conference play is a very realistic possibility. If the Lions sweep, they could have as many as 12 wins under their belts, at which point even a pretty dismal Big Ten season could still end with a postseason berth of some kind.