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Top Level Sports

Penn State Is the Unluckiest Program in Men’s College Basketball

A consistently strong team is set to miss March Madness again.

Image from Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times via AP

This time a year ago, Penn State appeared well on its way to the program’s first March Madness appearance since the 2010–11 season. They reached as high as #9 in the AP Poll and entered the Big Ten Tournament 21–10 overall, the 6-seed in a conference destined to send 10 teams to the Big Dance.

We all know how this story ends. The coronavirus ended the season prematurely, leaving only questions of “what if?” According to the Bracket Matrix, the Nittany Lions were a projected 6-seed in March Madness. I agreed. Ultimately, though, we’ll never know what would have happened.

It’s unfortunate that Penn State’s best season in recent memory came during the initial outbreak of COVID-19. But for the school in State College, bad luck is simply par for the course.

This season is on track to be the fourth consecutive year where Penn State will finish in the top 50 of the KenPom rankings. Yet, barring a miraculous run to a Big Ten Tournament title, it will once again end without a trip to March Madness.

Despite a record of just 8–13, Jim Ferry’s team is currently 40th in KenPom. It’s an unbelievable statistic that speaks to the strength of Penn State’s schedule and their unluckiness in close games.

Penn State fans know this — they witnessed nearly the exact same thing two years ago. In 2019, the Nittany Lions finished 14–18, including a 7–13 mark in Big Ten regular-season play. Despite this, they entered Selection Sunday #40 in KenPom and top-50 in all three predictive metrics used by the selection committee, along with #50 in the NET, which was in its first season of use.

The resume metrics had Penn State in the high 60s, and, with records of 3–12 and 4–4 in Q1 and Q2 games, respectively, this wasn’t a team deserving of an NCAA Tournament spot, though, if you were to flip a few overtime losses, the case quickly comes more interesting.

That year, Penn State had a top-10 strength of schedule, combined with a ranking of 343rd of 353 teams in KenPom’s luck stat, which attempts to show the difference between a team’s actual record and what would be expected based on their game-by-game efficiencies.

At -.102, this means the team would be expected to end with a winning percentage 10% higher than they actually had, which is the equivalent of about three wins.

This time around, Penn State is at a similar 2–11 in Q1 games, with the 2nd-toughest schedule according to KenPom (with shorter non-conference schedules, it’s actually the 2nd-toughest schedule on record behind this year’s Northwestern) and 295th in luck.

In fact, Penn State’s schedule has been so difficult that they have a WAB of just -1.3 according to T-Rank, meaning that an average bubble team would only be expected to go 9.3–11.7 against it. This is positively absurd.

It also speaks to how a team’s overall record is not always a strong barometer of that team’s strength. I made the case earlier this season for how a Big Ten team could make March Madness without a winning record. While that’s not out of the question yet (I’m looking at you, Indiana), I do wonder where a 10–11 Penn State team would be right now.

Even in a year like 2018 where Penn State went 21–13 and was top-30 in the BPI and KenPom on Selection Sunday, it wasn’t enough to crack the field. The team was 296th in luck and 77th in the RPI, which would be retired after the season.

The NET likely would have evaluated Penn State’s resume more favorably, but it’s unknown if that would have gotten them in the field. In this timeline, they were a 4-seed in the NIT and went on to win that tournament.

It’s more than fair criticism to say that in 2018, 2019, and now, 2021, Penn State should have won more basketball games. I’m not even sure if they deserved to make the March Madness field in 2018.

Still, the point stands that it’s very rare for a team rated so high by predictive metrics to repeatedly struggle to make the NCAA Tournament.

A strong few weeks in late January and early February had Penn State right on the bubble this year, but then a nasty four-game losing streak (including at home to Nebraska) quickly put an end to that.

Perhaps the run of bad luck will come to an end next season. I wouldn’t expect fans to be getting their hopes up, though.

Connor Groel is a graduate student at Northwestern’s Medill School. He is the editor of the Top Level Sports publication on Medium and host of the Slept On Sports podcast. His debut collection is available on Amazon.



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Connor Groel

Connor Groel

Professional sports researcher. Author of 2 books. Relentlessly curious.