In two weeks from today, a committee named by the NCAA will announce the tournament field that will play for the national championship of college basketball in one of the finest sports days of the year, known as Selection Sunday.
Of the 68 teams that will compete for the national championship, 32 earn their place by winning their conference championship. The other 36 are selected directly by the committee, based on which teams it believes are the best.
Some conference tournaments begin this week; most will happen the week after, though. So it’s difficult to project the field with accuracy, but ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has been doing it for years and he does a good job of it.
Lunardi updates his bracket every few days or so throughout the season and always assumes the team leading its conference will win it, until something else happens. Right now, he lists Penn State as the fourth team in his “Last Four Out” and Nebraska as the first team in his “Next Four Out.” In other words, they are neck-and-neck and, not just that, but right on the edge of being in or out.
Penn State beat Nebraska by two points in overtime when the two teams played in mid-January and they play a second time in Nebraska this evening to conclude the regular season.
If we assume both of these teams perform more or less equally in the Big Ten Tournament (which may end up being a useless exercise), I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these teams got into the field. I would be, however, if they both did because the committee tends to diversify.
Both teams have different strengths on their resumes. Nebraska has the better record, both in and out of conference. The Cornhuskers are 12–5 in conference play and 21–9 overall; the Nittany Lions are 9–8 in the Big Ten and 19–11 overall. A loss for PSU in its final regular season game would give it a .500 regular season conference record, which is a potential arbitrary observation some will make against it.
But the purpose of the tournament is to determine a national champion and in order to be the best, you must beat the best. Penn State has two wins against Ohio State, one at home and one on the road. The Buckeyes were projected to finish at the bottom of the conference in the preseason and won so many games that they were considered conference favorites as recently as two weeks ago. They’ve lost their hold on the regular season title since then and will finish second as long as Michigan State defeats Wisconsin as an 8-point favorite this afternoon.
Assessing Ohio State will go a long way in assessing Penn State. Is Ohio State better that Michigan, for instance? That’s the best team Nebraska defeated this season. The ‘Huskers lost by 30 at Michigan State, 10 at Creighton, 2 against Kansas, 12 at Purdue and 5 at Ohio State. The win over Michigan was at home, but it was also by 20. For what it’s worth, Ohio State and Michigan split their season series, each winning at home.
So there’s your argument that may or may not be an argument in another two weeks. Other than either team making a deep run or winning the Big Ten Tournament, the most compelling case one team can make over the other is a regular season home-and-home sweep.
That’s what Nebraska is playing to avoid today and that’s the biggest reason why I like the ‘Huskers. Plus, they play pretty well at home.
Free Pick: Nebraska -1
James Palmer Jr. • Joe Lunardi • nebraska • Penn State • Tony Carr