Big Ten title contender: Penn State?

OK, OK, so I'm clearly exaggerating. The Penn State Nittany Lions are not Big Ten title contenders. But like all exaggerations, this one is born from at least a kernel of truth, which is the simple fact that in their past four games, if you couldn't read the name on the front of their jersey and had no access to their prior performance, you'd think Penn State was one of the best teams in the Big Ten.

No, seriously. It's true.

In their past four games, the Nittany Lions are 2-2. They've beaten No. 19 Michigan State and No. 16 Illinois. They've lost to No. 2 Ohio State and, last night, to No. 13 Purdue. Both of those losses came on the road -- against arguably the Big Ten's two best teams -- by a whopping combined margin of four points. More importantly, neither game was a get-close-after-a-last-ditch-comeback-attempt-and-some-missed-free-throws sort of affair. No, in both losses, as in those two huge home wins, the Nittany Lions played a Big Ten title contender close for an entire 40-minute period. In both losses, Penn State had last-second opportunities to win the game.

(On Wednesday night, Penn State fell victim to a rather questionable out-of-bounds call with five seconds remaining that gave the ball back to Purdue and allowed JaJuan Johnson to hit his game-winning jumper on the wing. That call goes the other way -- and it probably should have -- and PSU probably takes home the win.)

This is, well, surprising. Penn State's nonconference performance -- which included losses to Mississippi, Maryland (in which Penn State scored 39 points at home), Virginia Tech and Maine (a 10-point home loss, at that) -- gave us no reason to expect this sort of sudden peskiness. Nor did Penn State's first three Big Ten games -- a win at Indiana, a loss at suddenly fading Michigan and a home blowout to Purdue, the same team Penn State just took to the wire in Mackey Arena -- offer many hints. For most of the season, the Nittany Lions appeared to be who we thought they were. Which is to say, not very good.

What's been the difference? The Nittany Lions' improvement in their past four games doesn't exactly constitute a budding hoops revolution. Throughout the season, Penn State has scored 1.05 and allowed 1.03 points per possession. Over all seven conference games, Penn State has scored 1.09 and allowed 1.11 ppp. In its past four games, Penn State is scoring about 1.10 points per trip while allowing about 1.09. Clearly, the Nittany Lions' offense improved in conference play, but it has fallen victim to the Big Ten's efficient offenses more often than not. These past four games, then, can probably be credited to better defensive play. But it's not like the Nittany Lions have suddenly set the world ablaze.

Instead, it appears this team is just a bit better than we thought. It is not a conference doormat, as was the case last season. Instead, these Nittany Lions more closely resemble the squad that won the NIT in 2009. They're solid on offense -- Pomeroy has Penn State's offense ranked No. 27 in the nation in adjusted efficiency -- and suspect on defense. Still, as we've seen these past four games, if the Nittany Lions defend well enough to cause even a slight downtick in how frequently opponents score at their end of the floor, this team can score enough to hang with the best in its conference. Throw in some timely Talor Battle heroics, a healthy helping of contributions from Jeff Brooks and David Jackson, and intelligent defensive strategy against superior frontcourts, and it really does seem that simple.

Whether that defensive improvement is a fluke or something more real is a fact we'll determine in the next few weeks. In the meantime, no, kids, the Big Ten title ain't happenin'. But given how bad Penn State was last season, and how bad this season was supposed to be, and how generally depressing and apathy-inducing most Penn State basketball usually is ... well, maybe Penn State fans should get the bandwagon going anyway. It's been a pretty great two weeks, huh?