Giger: Upset over Pitt would be huge for PSU

It’s great to see Penn State playing Pitt again at this time of year, even if it is basketball.

We still have to wait three more years for the football rivalry to resume.

To say it’s a rivalry on the hardwood isn’t exactly true if you are of the belief that, to have a rivalry, there needs to be a somewhat equal chance that either team can win. Yes, PSU leads the all-time series, 74-70, but in the what-have-you-done-lately world of sports:

n The last time PSU and Pitt played, the Panthers humiliated the Nittany Lions, 91-54, in 2005.

n Pitt has won five in a row and 15 of the last 21 in the series.

n Pitt hasn’t lost at home to PSU since 1978.

Oh, and Pitt is favored by 14 tonight at most sportsbooks, and by as much as 17.

Then again, we all know what happened the last time a Penn State team played as a heavy underdog. Bill O’Brien’s bunch showed how ridiculous that 24-point spread was Saturday at Wisconsin.

Penn State could beat Pitt tonight. That probably won’t happen, but there’s at least one good reason to give the Lions hope.

They can score. A lot.

The Lions come in averaging 82.3 points per game and have a guard-oriented offense led by Tim Frazier and D.J. Newbill that is very tough to defend.

The big problem for Penn State is that Pitt also can score in bunches – averaging 81.7 per game – and the Panthers do something the Lions haven’t figured out how to do. They play very good defense, a staple of the program during its tenure as a national power this century.

Pitt is giving up only 58 points per game, while PSU hasn’t been able to stop much of anybody, allowing 71.9 per game.

But enough about statistics. Let’s look at the numbers that matter most.

Tonight’s game at the Petersen Events Center is all about finding out what kind of team Patrick Chambers has against quality competition and whether Penn State might have any shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament, where Pitt almost certainly will be come March.

The Lions come in 6-2 but ranked just 98th in the RPI. Pitt is 7-0 and No. 44. If you think it’s too early to be thinking about RPI the first week of December, think again.

This is Penn State’s best and really only chance at a signature non-conference victory, the kind that could put the Lions over the top if – and it’s a big if – they wind up on the NCAA bubble.

Penn State would have to finish at least 8-10 in the Big Ten to even think about going dancing, and that will be a very tall order. But if the Lions can win eight league games, their tourney resume would be greatly enhanced by a win over a top-50 team like Pitt.

The St. John’s win seemed good, but the Red Storm’s RPI is only 91. La Salle’s is 189, so that’s no help at all. A win over Ole Miss (No. 58) would have been huge, but the Lions lost, 79-76.

Penn State still has Princeton to play in the non-con, and while the Tigers’ RPI is 64 right now, it’s doubtful that will hold up throughout the season. The rest of the games before league play are against dog opponents with terrible RPIs.

The bottom line is PSU badly needs a win tonight to prove legitimacy in its non-conference schedule. Even if the Lions go 10-3 in the non-con, which should be the case, the lack of a true quality victory will come back to haunt them down the road, and force them to have to pick up more than their share of big wins in the Big Ten.

Beating Pitt would be a big win, and the Lions can do it if Frazier, Newbill, Brandon Taylor and Ross Travis – all double-digit scorers – play well offensively. The Panthers have had a lot of trouble over the years, particularly in the NCAA Tournament, when they fall behind early against good offensive teams because Jamie Dixon’s program isn’t built to play from behind.

But along with scoring a lot, Penn State must play good defense to beat Pitt. I’m not sure the Lions can do that against any good offensive team, so tonight will be a good test.

It’s fun to see these teams playing again for the first time in eight years. And if PSU can somehow find a way to pull off a big upset, maybe the rivalry will be renewed and we’ll get to see more head-to-head matchups.

Prediction: Pitt 80, Penn State 68

Follow Giger on Twitter @CoryGiger.