There haven't been many times in its basketball history when Penn State has put itself in a must-win situation.
Tonight, thankfully, is one of those.
To Ed DeChellis' credit, even though it's taken six years - or longer than most schools allegedly serious about basketball would/should wait - the Nittany Lions are on the doorstep of securing a coveted NCAA Tournament at-large bid.
Now they have to act like that doorstep isn't separated by a drawbridge and a moat.
The first hurdle comes in the form of an Illinois team that earned just a little more national embarrassment than the Nits in a 38-33 loss to PSU in Champaign last month - one of the lower-scoring games since Naismith nailed up the peach baskets.
Figure Penn State will have Illinois' full attention, a challenge the Lions need to meet and one that should be aided considerably by the 9 p.m. start that may not get the bluehairs from Boalsburg but should stoke the PSU student body.
There haven't been very many meaningful ESPN games involving PSU this late in the season, so the Jordan Center may not need its trusty black curtains to hide most of the upper deck.
Unlike PSU football, crowd coverage is a prevailing question with the basketball team. Longtime radio ace Pat Boland, who coordinates the nightly media attendance pool, predicted 10,000 on Cory Giger's radio show.
It says here it should be more. With 40,000 students around, it should be packed.
How the Lions respond to a raucous crowd in front of a national audience will determine their postseason fate. In their last such opportunity, at Ohio State last week, Erin Andrews' presence apparently helped wilt them into an early 19-2 hole.
Should the Lions be fortunate enough to beat Illinois, they'll have to regroup quickly in order to square themselves mentally for a 2 p.m. tip Saturday at Iowa. The Hawkeyes may be near the bottom of the Big Ten standings, but they know they left a win in State College before a late unravel blew a 13-point lead.
Penn State can't afford a split.
It needs a pair of wins to avoid a full sweat entering the Big Ten Tournament and subsequent hyperventilation on Selection Sunday.
Since the NCAA tourney became a big event in the late 1970s, the Lions have been to three - 1991, 1996 and 2001.
There have been too many times over the years when they've landed in the NIT or just when they seemed about ready to turn the corner - the loss to Eastern Michigan after decking UCLA in the '91 tourney, the first-round exit as a five seed in '96, losing to a beatable Temple team for a berth in the final eight in '01, etc., etc. - they skipped a gear.
This season's examples are the home loss to Wisconsin and Saturday's near-devastating setback to visiting Indiana.
Tonight and Saturday can help erase that and, presuming the NCAA committee doesn't frown too much on the non-conference schedule, allow Penn State a March moment.
For all their suffering in the massive shadow of the football program, the Nittany Lions are surely due for one.
Rudel has covered five head basketball coaches at PSU. He can be reached at 946-7527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.