THUNDERDOME! put Penn State in a tough spot in 2014: Due to the impending move of the Nittany Lions to the Big Ten's new lacrosse concern in 2015, THUNDERDOME! has prohibited Penn State from participating in the 2014 THUNDERDOME! Tournament. This is a harsh reality: Without the safety net of a potential automatic invitation available to the Lions, Penn State has little room for error this coming season, forced to generate big wins and hope that its schedule holds up as a crushing destroyer so as to create a resume worthy of an at-large bid to The Big Barbecue. It's a ridiculous situation -- Penn State was an affiliate member of THUNDERDOME!; it's not like the league lost a core member, circumstances that allow for punitive damages of a significant nature -- but it's one that Penn State must navigate without concern for whether its soon-to-be former league acted as a petulant child.
Here are some schedule highlights and games of note:
February 15: Loyola; February 22: @Notre Dame; March 1: @Ohio State; March 10: @Denver
This is exactly why Penn State is simultaneously in a strong and precarious position for an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament: That four-game stretch, consecutive contests starting in mid-February, has incredible potential for the Nittany Lions to bag some big wins and generate serious strength of schedule points; alternatively, it could also be a lost opportunity that leaves Penn State sitting at 1-4 in mid-March with only a victory over Michigan. It's not like the Nittany Lions had any other choice other than to put this gauntlet together; essentially existing as a nomad on the Division I lacrosse landscape, Penn State needed to load up its out-of-conference schedule with elite opponents, those contests occurring at the only time on the calendar possible. The brutality of the stretch is without mitigation, but if Penn State can emerge in halfway decent shape, the Lions should be in decent shape for one of the eight at-large spots in the postseason.
Once More Unto the Breach
March 22: Albany; March 29: Villanova; April 5: @Drexel; April 12: @Towson
Most Division I teams have a three- to four-game stretch on their schedule where you wonder whether they'll walk away from the burning wreckage relatively unscathed before the movie-issue explosion. Penn State, in 2014, is going to experience that twice: After its initial foray into cheating death, the Nittany Lions almost immediately return to another life-threatening situation. The Albany-Villanova-Drexel-Towson stretch isn't as merciless as the month of games that Penn State will undergo at the start of its 2014 campaign, but it is arguably more important: If the Lions waver against Loyola-Notre Dame-Ohio State-Denver, this stretch is a last gasp at strengthening the team's NCAA Tournament resume against determined competition (not hyper-elite, but still potent opposition); if the Lions survive that front-loaded slate of non-conference games, this final push can cement the Lions into college lacrosse's biggest moment. Moreover, these games could serve as important head-to-head results in postseason seeding and at-large considerations, providing valuable delineations between teams that may have similar portfolios. Penn State needs to come correct on consecutive Saturdays when mental and physical fatigue from already playing in vitally critical games could play a role in their performances; uneven efforts here is essentially poison for the Nittany Lions.