Future looks promising for Penn State

Penn State and Alex Bentley are 8-1 and in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. AP Photo/Ralph Wilson

Penn State's Maggie Lucas is one of those players who truly has a sense of the moment. The kind who is aware if momentum is in danger of shifting, if a teammate needs an encouraging slap on the back, if the Bryce Jordan Center fans (other than her always plugged-in dad) are being a little too quiet.

If you didn't know Lucas was from Philly … you’d guess she was. She has enough energy to help power up the Superdome if it ever goes dark again, and -- hallelujah -- she can flat-out shoot the ball. We don't necessarily see that as much these days as we'd like to in basketball.

Lucas will need to utilize all her positive personality and skills, as will the rest of her teammates, if Penn State is to win the Big Ten Conference, take the league tournament, and be a team that can make it to at least the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

Is Penn State capable of doing all that? Yes, and maybe a surprising upset loss at Wisconsin on Thursday actually will help. If nothing else, it reminded Penn State that its defense can be exploited and how important it is not to let an "underdog" hang around in a game.

Monday, Penn State bounced back from that defeat and beat Purdue 69-61 in State College, Pa. That kept Penn State, which dropped a spot to No. 8 in this week's AP poll, alone in first place in the Big Ten. No. 13 Purdue, now 7-2 in the cinference, is in second place.

Michigan State, Nebraska and Illinois are tied for third at 6-3. And, yes, it is going to be quite a scrum of similar teams that will battle for position down the stretch of this Big Ten regular season.

What Penn State would love is to be above that fray, to separate itself a bit from the rest of the league and then hold onto that perch. The Badgers rattled it Thursday, despite having only one Big Ten win before taking down Penn State 63-61 in Madison, Wis.

That defeat might still hurt, at least a little bit, when it comes time for NCAA tournament seeding. But Penn State can still put itself in very good position for a favorable slot in the bracket.

Penn State has seven regular-season games left: at Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota and Nebraska, and at home against Michigan State, Illinois and Michigan.

The fact that it sounds like a pretty tough slate even for the apparent best team in the conference is a good indication of how the Big Ten is on the upswing. Several new coaches have joined the conference since the last time a Big Ten team made the Final Four: Michigan State in 2005.

That includes Penn State's Coquese Washington, who took over for the 2007-08 season and has been successful and has made this fully her program. Now is Penn State ready to take that next step and be in the mix for a Final Four spot?

A lot will depend on not just the terrific backcourt of Lucas and Alex Bentley, but also how well Nikki Greene and Mia Nickson can both rebound and produce points in the paint. Plus, how strong Penn State's defense can play, especially on the road.

The Big Ten tournament is in a new location this season: the Sears Centre in suburban Chicago, and we’ll have to see how/if that changes any of that event's dynamic. All but one of the previous 18 tournaments have been held in Indianapolis, which has been a good thing for Purdue. The Boilermakers have won the Big Ten tourney title eight times, including last season.

Penn State hasn't won the league tournament since taking the crown the first two seasons that the Big Ten began to hold the event annually in 1995. (There was, technically, a Big Ten tournament in 1982 with no subsequent follow-up).

Lucas has been paramount in bringing a feeling of excitement and possibility to Penn State. She's part of a veteran team now that has the ability to do some things her school hasn't done in awhile in women’s basketball.

It's not going to be easy for Penn State to go through the rest of Big Ten without another loss. But there could be some very large moments in the next month-plus for Lucas & Co.