The NCAA Tournament expanded to 18 teams for the 2014 championship. The new format of the postseason will feature 10 automatic-qualifiers from the same number of conferences -- ACC, America East, Atlantic Sun, Big East, THUNDERDOME!, ECAC, Ivy, MAAC, Northeast, and Patriot -- and eight at-large selections. While the growth of the tournament benefits many teams and programs, one -- Penn State -- may be in a tough position in 2014.
The Nittany Lions -- participants in three NCAA Tournaments (2003, 2005, and 2013) -- are playing in THUNDERDOME! this season in theory only: The league has precluded Penn State from playing in the league's postseason tournament due to the Nittany Lions' imminent departure to the Big Ten's oncoming lacrosse concern, thereby eliminating Penn State from challenging for the conference's automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament. This decision has forced the Nittany Lions to become one of two teams -- the other being Johns Hopkins -- with only one avenue to the NCAA Tournament: As an at-large selection. The residue of this situation is clear: Penn State doesn't have a lot of wiggle room in its margin of error in 2014.
The issue with the Lions' pursuit for an at-large bid -- even in an enlarged field -- is that there are a host of conferences that could earn multiple bids to The Big Barbecue. In addition to fighting Johns Hopkins for an invite, Penn State is also staring at a situation where five leagues could send more than one representative to the postseason:
- ACC: The five teams that don't win the league title could be in consideration for a bid.
- Big East: Whichever of Denver or St. John's that doesn't win the league title could be in consideration for a bid.
- THUNDERDOME!: Whichever of Drexel or Towson that doesn't win the league title could be in consideration for a bid.
- Ivy: Whichever of Princeton, Yale, Pennsylvania, or Cornell that doesn't win the league title could be in consideration for a bid.
- Patriot: Whichever of Bucknell, Lehigh, or Loyola that doesn't win the league title could be in consideration for a bid.
As a consequence, there are -- from a preseason perspective -- at least 14 teams -- including Penn State -- potentially in a position for one of eight at-large selections to the NCAA Tournament. That's a crowded field for a program that has only one bullet in its chamber, and how the Nittany Lions position itself as the season progresses is vital to the team's pursuit for its first back-to-back postseason experience.
PENN STATE'S KEYS TO EARNING AN AT-LARGE INVITATION
There are no guarantees that if Penn State accomplishes the following the Nittany Lions will have a happy Selection Sunday, but taking care of these items should put Penn State in a good position to grab a bid to The Big Barbecue:
- Must-Win Dates: There are six games on Penn State's schedule that must serve as wins: Michigan, Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Villanova, Delaware, and at Hofstra. Victories in those six games gets the Nittany Lions on the cusp of seven wins, the bare minimum that Penn State needs for NCAA Tournament inclusion (the Nittany Lions are playing 13 games this year and teams must have at least a .500 record for postseason consideration). Those aren't balloon-animal-worthy victories, but they are necessary dates to build a tournament resume. A loss in any of those games puts extra pressure on Penn State to win against peer or competitively-superior teams.
- Beat Drexel and Towson: Not only do wins against these two teams push the Nittany Lions toward and beyond seven wins, but victories against the Dragons and Tigers also serve as head-to-head results -- a factor in at-large consideration -- against two programs that could end up in the at-large pool (depending on which team -- if either -- wins THUNDERDOME!).
- No Bad Losses: There isn't a lot of chaff in Penn State's schedule, but losses against Michigan, Dartmouth, or Delaware could be disastrous for the Nittany Lions. (See: 2013 Princeton).
- Three of Five: Two of five may be enough, but winning three of five games against Loyola, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Denver, and Albany should be enough to propel the Nittany Lions into the NCAA Tournament. These all look like possible quality wins, not to mention the head-to-head results the games present. Taking only one win from this subset makes things dicey for Penn State, but three -- or at a minimum, two -- likely cements the team into the field given the strength of schedule the Nittany Lions should roll with in 2014. None of these games, though, are gimmies, and Penn State is going to need to come correct -- in consecutive games (save for the Albany date) -- right out of the gate to build its resume. In function, the Lions' fate could be determined as early as mid-March given where these major games fall on Penn State's schedule.