Is Penn State A Pretender Or Contender?

Posted by Alex Moscoso on December 17th, 2014

Last Sunday, Penn State got its best win of the season when it soundly defeated a talented George Washington team at the Bryce Jordan Center. The victory pushed the Nittany Lions’ record to 10-1, which is tied for best in the Big Ten — the lone loss a double-overtime bout with Charlotte. While the number of wins is impressive, a deeper look into the record reveals the absence of any other resume-enhancing wins. Even last weekend’s win against the Colonials, while no easy task, represents a victory over a team that hovers around the top 50 in both the KenPom and Sagarin ratings. Also concerning is the fact that Penn State has not exactly been blowing out its inferior opponents (they won by fewer than five points against Virginia Tech, Marshall, and Duquesne, but they still won). This presents something of a paradox between their on-court performance and their record, leaving Big Ten fans to guess how good Penn State really is. In this post, I’ll explore both sides of whether Pat Chambers’ squad is really a contender or pretender as he pushes forward toward what could possibly be his first NCAA Tournament bid as the head coach.

Shep Garner has been able to emerge as a secondary scorer for Penn State in his freshman year.

Shep Garner has been able to emerge as a secondary scorer for Penn State in his freshman year (Mark Selders/

  • Penn State is a pretender. Look no further than the Sagarin ratings to show the true discrepancy between the Nittany Lions’ record and performance. Specifically note the Elo rating component, which is a formula that solely considers wins, losses and who they’re against, and compare it with the Golden Mean and Pure Points ratings, two metrics that take into account point differential. Based on the Elo rating, Penn State is ranked 49th in the country; his Golden Mean and Pure Points ratings list the Nittany Lions at 128th and 119th, respectively. That’s an approximate gap of 70-80 teams, with the difference accounting for actual on-court performance. KenPom makes a similar case in his ratings, as he ranks the team 89th but notes that it is among the top 40 in luck, a metric that measures how much a team’s record has been above its expected play on the court. So if you’re looking at these metrics alone, it’s undeniable that the 10-1 record is somewhat misleading.

  • Penn State is a contender. However you want to slice it, 10 close wins counts the same on the record books as 10 blowouts. And 10 wins before January is welcome news to a team that only won 16 games in all of last season. Additionally, while the ratings may not yet love the Nittany Lions, they boast the Big Ten’s top scorer, D.J. Newbill (21.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG), as their leader. While the senior guard is certainly the centerpiece of the offense, he has a decent supporting cast as well, with junior forward Brandon Taylor (10.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG) and freshman guard Shep Garner (10.5 PPG) alongside him. Garner has been especially surprising, as the young player has been able to carve out a role for himself as another deep threat (38.0% from three) to complement Newbill. If Garner and  John Johnson, a transfer who was expected to have a big impact with his scoring, can both continue to improve, this team could win enough Big Ten games to make a run at the NCAA Tournament given what they’ve already accumulated.

With no truly marquee wins available on the non-conference schedule (Drexel and Darmouth come next), Penn State will have to prove in league play that it is really a contender for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. And with that soft resume, simply going .500 in conference play to cross the 20-win threshold won’t be enough to reach the right side of the bubble. Luckily for them, most everyone outside of Wisconsin appears to be beatable on any given night. To give Chambers his first trip to the Big Dance, Penn State will have to continue to improve and find a way to keep the close wins coming against their conference counterparts.

Alex Moscoso (170 Posts)

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