Giger: Bubble rap: Starting tonight, Lions have chance to bolster NCAA hopes

We’ve cleared Valentine’s Day, and Penn State basketball is still relevant this season. That, if you’re a college hoops fan in these parts, is a thing of beauty.

The Nittany Lions bring a three-game winning streak into tonight’s huge home game against No. 8 Ohio State at the Bryce Jordan Center. The Buckeyes are atop the Big Ten standings with a 13-1 record, and their lone loss was on a buzzer-beating 30-foot 3-pointer by PSU’s Tony Carr three weeks ago.

There should be a terrific crowd on hand (14,000??) at the BJC for this one tonight, and another victory over Ohio State would help the process of getting the Lions into the bubble discussion for an NCAA Tournament berth.

For now, Penn State is not in the bubble discussion. The resume just isn’t good enough. But over the next few weeks, there will be opportunities on the schedule to win the kind of impressive games that could at least get the Lions on the bubble.

Here’s a look at the resume and some possibilities:

n PSU is 18-9 overall and 8-6 in the Big Ten, plus it’s won five of six, so it’s getting hot at the right time.

n The Lions’ RPI, though, is just 87. That’s nowhere close to good enough. They have to get into the low 60s at least, and that will be tough. But …

n The schedule gives them a chance. The final four regular-season games are tonight against the Buckeyes, then at No. 6 Purdue, then home against No. 22 Michigan, and lastly at Nebraska. Penn State has to win at least two of those games, and while that’s going to be very difficult, it’s certainly doable.

n If the Lions can win two of those four games, then go 2-1 in the Big Ten Tournament (figuring the second win would be against a good opponent), that would leave them with a 12-9 record against the league and 22-12 overall. In many years, that would be good enough to get into the tournament or at the very least be a bubble team. But not necessarily this year. Why?

n The Big Ten is down. As down as it has been in some time. ESPN’s bracketology only projects four teams from the league to get into the tournament — Ohio State, Purdue, Michigan State, Michigan — and there’s only one other team, Nebraska, that’s among the first eight teams out.

n One major factor working against Penn State is its non-conference performance. The Lions beat a bunch of lousy teams, lost to the two best ones they faced (Texas A&M and N.C. State) and also dropped a home game to Rider. As embarrassing as that looked at the time, Rider’s RPI is — are you ready for this? — 68, and it’s probably going to the NCAA Tournament from the MAAC.

n It also hurts badly that Penn State lost at home to both Wisconsin (4-10 in Big Ten) and Minnesota (3-12). If the Lions had won both those games against teams that are way down this season, they’d be 10-4 in the league with a much better RPI and probably already in the bubble discussion.

OK, so when you couple the bad non-conference resume with a decent but not great resume in the Big Ten, it’s easy to see why Penn State probably won’t make the NCAA Tournament. But the most important thing, at this point, is that there are still some good wins that can potentially be had, and those would bolster the Lions’ resume substantially.

It starts tonight against the Buckeyes. It cannot be stressed enough what a win could do for the Lions. Ohio State’s RPI is 16, and it is projected to be a 4 seed by Joe Lunardi. A win tonight could bump the Lions’ RPI up by 8-10 points or so.

I just can’t see Penn State winning at Purdue on Sunday. The Boilermakers have an excellent team and will be heavily favored (8-10 points), so chalk that up as a loss.

Penn State then returns home to face Michigan, which is currently ranked 22nd with an RPI of 39. The Lions absolutely must win that game. No two ways about it. A loss to the Wolverines at home, and it’s much tougher to make the math work, barring a run to the Big Ten Tournament title game with several major upsets.

That leaves a trip to Nebraska (53 RPI) on Feb. 25. The Cornhuskers are exceptional at home, with a 14-1 record and the only loss coming against Kansas by one point. That will be an enormous game for both teams’ NCAA tourney hopes, and if PSU can win it — coupled with the fact that it already beat the Huskers earlier — and you’d have to think the Lions would get the benefit of the doubt over Nebraska in any bubble discussion.

If by some chance Penn State can go 3-1 against that tough competition down the stretch to finish 11-7 in the Big Ten, its RPI probably would be in the 60 range. With two more wins in the Big Ten Tournament, the guess here is that PSU would be squarely in the discussion of the last four in/first four out, and I think the Lions would get in. Helping their cause would be a quality record of 10-3 down the stretch heading into Selection Sunday.

A 2-2 record to close the regular season, then two wins in the Big Ten tourney, and I think PSU will be in the bubble discussion but ultimately would be one of the first eight teams out. There would be some quality wins but just not enough, not to mention the albatross of a non-conference slate that would actually detract from the team’s resume.

One thing we can be certain of at this point is that coach Patrick Chambers already has done enough this season to warrant keeping his job. That was in question when PSU started 3-5 in the Big Ten, but the team’s strong play of late — highlighted by that terrific win at Ohio State — has bought Chambers more time.

The Lions can still be maddening to watch at times late in games when the offense bogs down, players start standing around and Carr decides to try and do everything himself. He has made some big shots to win games, but he also takes a lot of bad shots and make questionable decisions in late-game situations.

Carr was the hero against Ohio State last time around, and you have to like that a young man is willing to take clutch shots and capable of making some of them. But for the Lions to win enough games to get into the tournament, the offense is going to have to be much more efficient in the closing minutes because they’ll undoubtedly be in tight games.

There’s a lot of talent on this PSU team, and Chambers deserves credit for putting a squad together that has a chance to work its way into the bubble discussion.

For this team and program to take the next step and actually get into the NCAA Tournament, it’s going to come down to figuring out how to play well for an entire 40 minutes, instead of being good for the first 35 and then forgetting what it did to get there with the game on the line.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” weekdays from 4 to 6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM.