For college basketball junkies, the KenPom rankings have become the best and most detailed resource to check out each season. It’s a comprehensive system giving a true indication of how good or bad a basketball team is, as it utilizes advanced statistics and covers all 351 Division I teams.
Last season, sadly, Rutgers finished #279th in the rankings, easily the worst ranked power five conference team in the country and they came close to being the lowest ranked team since KenPom started in 2002. That is worth noting when looking at where KenPom ranked Rutgers in the preseason rankings and the season prediction that was just released on Sunday night. For a full explanation from Ken Pomeroy on how he calculates the rankings, click here. Let’s take a look at how the rankings viewed Rutgers and their opponents, including the rest of the Big Ten.
Rutgers landed at 191st in the preseason rankings, still coming in as the worst power five conference team in the land. Still, it’s hard to be upset at a ranking that is 88 spots higher than where the Scarlet Knights finished last season. I’m optimistic Rutgers will finish the 2016-2017 season significantly higher than their starting point, but it’s important to remember that the goal is progress of any kind this year.
In terms of a season prediction, KenPom predicts Rutgers to have an 8-5 record in non-conference play and a 4-14 record in Big Ten play. That results in a final regular season record of 12-19. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised if Pomeroy had calculated a worse prediction. Even if that is how Rutgers finishes this season, it would be hard to be disappointed. Remember, Rutgers is 3-35 in Big Ten games in their first two years. They went 6-7 in non-conference play last season. Finishing with a winning record in non-conference play and notching 4 victories in the conference this season, while not sufficient in the long term, would still mark progress. We are literally starting on the ground floor, with nowhere to go but up.
The interesting part of the KenPom prediction is that it doesn’t actually have Rutgers favored to win any Big Ten games. The best chance they give Rutgers to win in conference play is in home games against Penn State (46%), Nebraska (43%), Minnesota (38%), and Northwestern (35%).
Here is a complete look at KenPom’s preseason rankings for the Big Ten conference:
#13 Ohio State
#14 Michigan State
#98 Penn State
A few quick thoughts:
- In my humble opinion, Ohio State, Minnesota, and Nebraska are rated higher than they will actually perform this season. In fact, I think there is a chance Nebraska will be the worst team in the conference this season. For the Buckeyes, they have a lot of talent, but they need to show a lot of improvement from last season. They need a lot of things to go right in order to end up being an elite team. It’s possible, I just think their preseason ranking is very high.
- I think Maryland and Iowa are ranked too low. Both have a lot of question marks with new players needing to step up, like Ohio State. However, they are ranked at least 30 plus spots lower than the Buckeyes. I think both Mark Turgeon and Fran McCaffrey are very good coaches and will have their teams playing better than the KenPom rankings expect. They each have legitimate stars to lead their teams as well, with Melo Trimble and Peter Jok, respectively.
- Rutgers defensive numbers should improve tremendously this season versus last and will be the biggest reason they improve, both on the court and in the KenPom rankings. It’s just a matter of how much progress they can make on the defensive end, as they really can’t be much worse than last season. I’m optimistic that there will be significant improvement. As I wrote previously, defense is without a doubt, the key to this season.
- The Big Ten is ranked fourth out of thirty-two conferences. The ACC, Big 12, and Big East are ranked above and in that order. I think top to bottom the Big Ten can prove to be as good as second best behind the ACC, but they need Rutgers to pull their weight.
As for the non-conference schedule, Rutgers has a very manageable slate. It includes only two games against teams ranked in the Top 50. While they will be heavy underdogs against Miami and Seton Hall, both on the road, they should at least have a fighting chance or be favored in their eleven remaining non-conference matchups.
#24 Miami (FL)
#38 Seton Hall
#199 Stony Brook
#247 North Texas
#263 Fairleigh Dickinson
#337 Morgan State
#349 Central Connecticut State
NR Molloy (Division II)
Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying it’s fair to expect Rutgers to finish 11-2 in non-conference play. That is certainly a possibility if everything falls into place extremely quickly, but it’s not likely. Half the roster has not played a Division I basketball game yet and the players haven’t been through even one game together. None of them have seen game action under the new coaching staff. Head Coach Steve Pikiell is asking a lot of this team at a much higher standard than the returning players are used to, as well as those making the jump from lesser competitive levels. Of course, greater expectations from the coaching staff is crucial in making this team better and more competitive. However, with increased demands from the coaches, it would be unrealistic not to expect growing pains along the way.
KenPom sees it that way as well, as their prediction has Rutgers losing to the top five ranked opponents on their non-conference schedule, including one team below them in the rankings. The Scarlet Knights play on the road against DePaul in just the third game of the season, as part of the Gavitt Games between the Big East and Big Ten. It is certainly a winnable game against a team that was also picked last in their conference by the media pundits, but it will be a challenge nonetheless. Playing at Stony Brook in Pikiell’s return to the program that he built from the ground up will be no easy task. Taking on an improving Atlantic-10 program in Fordham at Madison Square Garden will also be a battle. Even against the lesser competition on the schedule, Rutgers cannot take any opponent for granted.
This is especially true early on in the season, as Rutgers could certainly lose a game on paper they should not. During the Eddie Jordan era, the program lost to William & Mary, Drexel, St. Francis (Pa), Fairleigh Dickinson, and St. Peter’s. Two of three seasons resulted in 6-7 records in non-conference play. I’m not saying we should throw a parade if Rutgers finishes 8-5 this year, but I do think we’d have to be satisfied with that type of progress.
Bottom line, I think Rutgers can do better than the KenPom season prediction. I think they can even surprise some Big Ten teams if steady improvement occurs throughout the season. Steve McGarvie, my new favorite basketball blogger not named Dave White agrees, predicting Rutgers to finish 11th in the Big Ten.
It’s hard not to be optimistic after hearing about how Rutgers fared in their scrimmage on Saturday against Monmouth (94th in KenPom). Even so, it was just a scrimmage in late October and out of the spotlight of the season. I’d say it’s fair to hope for a lot better than the past few years and expect not nearly as bad of a basketball team this season. Where they ultimately shake out with their final record is anyone’s guess. Hopefully, the ride this season for fans is far more enjoyable than it has been in recent years, whatever the final result may be.
Stick with OTB throughout the preseason, as Dave White and I have a lot planned in the next couple of weeks. Tip off for the debut of the Steve Pikiell era is just 17 days away!