Penn State closed out the unofficial first half of their season last weekend with a pair of wins against Wisconsin. The wins moved Penn State into first place in the Big Ten. That doesn't mean much at this point. Penn State has played just four of their 20 conference games, league favorite Minnesota has played just two.
More difficult to ignore is that the Nittany Lions currently sit at 16th overall in the Pairwise Rankings. Of course there are still a lot of games to be played in the second half of the season that will change those rankings. But we're also well past the point where those computer rankings are just a fluke. We don't have all the data yet, but we certainly have enough to get an accurate picture of how the season has gone so far. And looking at where things currently stand, it's awfully tempting to see Penn State sitting there--they'd be the first team out of the tournament if no upsets occurred in conference tournaments if the season ended today--and wonder if the Nittany Lions could make their first appearance in the NCAA tournament.
It would certainly be noteworthy if Penn State contended for an NCAA berth in just their third year as an NCAA Division I program, but also, not exactly shocking. That third year is the key. While their relatively small senior class is still populated with cast-offs from other colleges--albeit it, fairly decent cast-offs; Taylor Holstrom is tied for 13th in the country in scoring--their junior class is really the first true full recruiting class brought to Penn State with the intention of competing with the Division I program. It's a group that always had talent, but didn't quite have the maturity to be effective in their first two seasons, especially with no real base of upperclassmen ahead of them to carry the load while they learned the college game.
Being competitive in the program's third year always seemed like the realistically best-case scenario. It's a credit to Guy Gadowsky and his coaching staff that they appear to have this thing on the right track so quickly.
But will it all translate into an NCAA tournament bid? I still think it's unlikely, but for an unexpected reason. When it became clear that Penn State's arrival on the college hockey scene would create the Big Ten Hockey Conference, many speculated that the fledgling program could be a drag on the conference for years to come. Ironically, it looks as though the opposite could happen. It is going to be very hard for Penn State to make much headway in the Pairwise Rankings while playing in such a weak conference.
Some of it is Penn State's fault. Their non-conference schedule wasn't very strong at all. With non-conference series against UConn, Holy Cross, and Bentley, they currently have the 40th-ranked strength of schedule in the country. But it's understandable why they scheduled like that. They were expecting a gauntlet of Big Ten teams in the second half of the season, so it makes sense to try and pick up some non-conference wins to build off of. And who knows, maybe we're not even having this discussion if Penn State played a more difficult non-conference schedule.
The problem is that as we move into the second half of the season, with predominantly Big Ten teams on their schedule, their schedule doesn't get any tougher.
Of their remaining 21 games, Penn State only plays five games against teams ranked ahead of them in the RPI. Four of those are against Minnesota(currently 10th in the RPI) and one against Vermont(currently ranked 9th).
The RPI was changed last year to provide a 'Quality Win Bonus' for beating teams ranked in the top 20(there's a set amount for beating the #1 team that decreases incrementally all the way down to #20). The Nittany Lions currently get a tiny fraction for beating #13 UMass Lowell, but otherwise, there's just not even many opportunities to pick up those quality wins. After Minnesota and Vermont, there's hope that Robert Morris(#22) or maybe Michigan(#28) could crack the top 20, but even they did, it would likely be just barely. There's a chance they play #20 Colgate over the holidays. But the other teams in the Big Ten are basically a lost cause at this point.
What that means is that Penn State is going to have win a lot of games if they want to hold their ranking, because losses are going to hurt much, much more than wins will help. Last week Minnesota won and tied against Michigan State on the road, and that was a poor enough result to drop Minnesota a few spots in the RPI. Now, it's still early enough that the computer rankings a little more fluid, and Minnesota was higher ranked, meaning it's a little easier for them to drop. But it's a good example of how even pretty good results might not be enough.
The Big Ten is a dreadful 29-34-4 in non-conference games this year, last among the five major conferences in college hockey. That record looks even worse when you subtract out the 7-0-1 against Atlantic Hockey, a conference that likely won't have anyone seriously competing for at-large tournament bid this year. That's just not a recipe for getting more than one team into the NCAA tournament as an at-large bid.
So there are plenty of reasons to be excited in Happy Valley. The Nittany Lions are doing good things, and doing them faster than most expected. But it might take ripping off 13 or 14 wins in the second half of the season to have a legitimate shot at making the NCAA tournament, and it's tough to see that happening at this point.