Even after back-to-back losses, Penn State remains on the bubble for the NCAA tournament.
In the latest bracket projection by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi updated Thursday, the Nittany Lions are in the “First Four Out” group behind UCLA, Texas and Washington. They’re just ahead of Nebraska, which is in the “Next Four Out” group, making Sunday’s matchup with the Cornhuskers crucial for both teams to remain a factor in the NCAA tournament discussion heading into the conference tournaments.
What are Penn State’s chances to reach the NCAA tournament heading into its game at Nebraska at 5:15 p.m. Sunday?
Aside from winning an automatic tournament bid by winning the Big Ten Tournament, which begins Wednesday at Madison Square Garden in New York, the Nittany Lions will need to beat Nebraska and make an improbable run to the conference championship game to have a chance for an at-large NCAA bid.
With a win over Nebraska in the regular season finale, Penn State would lock up the No. 6 seed for the Big Ten tournament. That means the Nittany Lions would need to knock off No. 3 seed Purdue and potentially No. 2 seed Ohio State or Michigan State (The Spartans can clinch the No. 1 seed with a win over Wisconsin on Sunday; if they lose, Ohio State earns the No. 1 seed).
If the Nittany Lions can earn wins over two top teams to get to the tournament title game March 4, they’ll keep their NCAA hopes alive.
It’ll be tough to pull off — Penn State would need to win four straight games, including back-to-back matchups against Purdue and Ohio State or Michigan State. And the Nittany Lions are currently without starting forward Mike Watkins, who will miss Sunday’s game with a knee injury.
Bubble teams to watch
Penn State fans hoping the Nittany Lions can still make a run should be rooting for other bubble teams to falter before Selection Sunday. Here’s a look at some of the teams ahead of Penn State on the bubble at this point, according to Lunardi’s projection:
Kansas State: The Wildcats took a 20-8 record into their game at Oklahoma on Saturday night, and they face TCU (20-9) on Tuesday night and Baylor (17-12) on March 3.
Providence: The Friars own an 18-11 record with games against No. 4 Xavier (25-4) on Wednesday and St. John’s (14-15) on March 3.
North Carolina State: NC State beat Penn State in November, and the Wolfpack (19-9) close out the regular season against No. 25 Florida State (19-8) on Sunday, Georgia Tech on Thursday and Louisville (19-10) on March 3.
Baylor: Baylor fell to 17-12 on the season after an 82-72 loss to TCU on Saturday. The Bears finish the regular season against Oklahoma and Kansas State.
St. Bonaventure: St. Bonaventure took a 21-6 record into its game against VCU (16-12) on Saturday night. The Bonnies take on Davidson (17-10) on Tuesday and Saint Louis on March 3.
Syracuse: The Orange went into Saturday night’s game against No. 5 Duke with an 18-10 record and have games remaining against Boston College (16-13) and No. 15 Clemson.
Louisville: Louisville beat Virginia Tech 75-68 on the road Saturday to improve to 19-10. The Cardinals face No. 1 Virginia on Thursday and NC State on March 3.
USC: The Trojans rolled past Utah 74-58 on Saturday, improving to 21-9. They close out the regular season March 3 against UCLA.
UCLA: The Bruins are 19-9 with games against Colorado (15-13) on Sunday and USC on March 3.
Texas: The Longhorns (17-12) edged Oklahoma State 65-64 on Saturday. Texas takes on No. 8 Kansas on the road Monday and hosts No. 21 West Virginia on March 3.
Washington: The Huskies went into Saturday’s game against California with an 18-10 record. Washington will host Oregon State on Thursday and Oregon on March 3.