After completing their non-conference home schedule with a perfect 8-0 record, it’s time for Rutgers to shift their focus into becoming road warriors. The reality is five of their next six games will be played away from the RAC, which will provide a big test for this team. Not only is the competition ramping up significantly, but they will be playing in some tough road environments as well.
After going 0-11 on the road last season, Rutgers is 2-1 so far this year with wins at DePaul and Stony Brook. Their former Big East foe did not have much of a crowd for that game, but Rutgers did come through when they needed to in a hostile, emotionally charged environment at Stony Brook. Hopefully, they can channel that experience in future contests when they travel to even more difficult environments in conference play.
First up in the second part of what is a crucial week for the program, Rutgers takes on Fordham this Sunday at Madison Square Garden. It is a neutral game in the sense that it’s not on Fordham’s home court, but as much as Rutgers has played at the Garden over the years, no one on the current roster other than Mike Williams has played there before. Fordham has lost five games in a row, so they’ll be hungry for a win. Rutgers cannot afford to take this team lightly and overlook them with big name opponents looming next.
This game is not televised, so hopefully there is a solid turnout from Rutgers fans for this one. Information on tickets, which includes St. John’s playing Penn State in the first half of the MSG’s Holiday Festival doubleheader, is here:
After Sunday, Rutgers completes their non-conference schedule against blood rival Seton Hall in Newark at the Prudential Center. This game is on Friday, December 23rd, which is obviously not the best timing right before Christmas. However, with both teams playing well, I still think it will be a lively turnout and the importance of this matchup will be present. Seton Hall is playing their best basketball of the season so far, upsetting #16 South Carolina at the Garden on Monday. They are 8-2 and also own wins over Cal and Iowa, making for three high major wins already. We will have plenty of coverage next week ahead of this matchup, but it’s safe to say Rutgers will be double digit underdogs in this one.
Once Christmas passes, the Big Ten schedule begins with a bang for the Scarlet Knights. They start with three of their first four games on the road. The program has never won away from the RAC in Big Ten play, going 0-18 in their first two seasons. It starts on December 27th at #14 Wisconsin, who at 10-2 have beaten Providence, Marquette, Tennessee, and Georgetown, as well as two of last season’s Final Four teams in Oklahoma and Syracuse. They feature perhaps the best trio of players of any team in the conference, with preseason Player of the Year Nigel Hayes, reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Ethan Happ, and steady guard Bronson Koenig. Talk about being thrown into the fire at the start of league play. This will be a tough matchup, to say the least.
The lone home game during this upcoming six game stretch is a New Year’s Day matinee against Penn State. This will be a big opportunity for Rutgers to get a win in conference play early on, as the Nittany Lions have struggled so far this season. They are just 6-5 and own wins over George Washington and Georgia Tech, but have lost to solid mid-major teams in Albany and George Mason. They also lost to Duke, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. This team has talent, with heralded recruits Josh Reaves, Tony Carr, and Lamar Stevens on the roster. They are led by junior guard Shep Garner, but are a young team still trying to come together. This is one of the best opportunities Rutgers will have to win in conference play all season.
After ringing in the New Year at home, it’s back on the road on January 4th for a meeting against Tom Izzo and uber-talented Michigan State. Yes, they are just 7-4 this season, but their schedule has been absolutely brutal. They’ve lost to three top 10 teams in Duke, Arizona, and Kentucky, as well as a ranked Wichita State squad. The Spartans are a young team and have battled a litany of injuries already this season, but I fully expect them to contend once again for a Big Ten title.
The last game of this treacherous road stretch is at Iowa on January 8th. Despite being led by conference standout Peter Jok, this team has struggled quite a bit so far this season. They are 5-5 after a huge win in their last game over then ranked in-state rival Iowa State, which they badly needed. The Hawkeyes have lost to the Hall, Memphis, Notre Dame, and top ten Virginia. However, their loss at home to Omaha was a real head scratcher. Their scoring a healthy 86 points per game, but have surrendered 90+ points in four of their losses. This matchup is still over three weeks away and a lot can change before then, but it’s fair to think Rutgers has a shot to win if they play close to their maximum potential in this game.
The biggest takeaway in looking at these upcoming games is not only the quality of their opponents, but the quality of non-conference schedules those teams have played. This isn’t meant as a criticism towards Rutgers, who justifiably played a very light non-conference schedule and have won every game they were supposed to. However, they are now entering the ring against more talented and more battle tested opponents. It’s both exciting and terrifying, to be honest.
This makes the games against Fordham and Penn State must wins in my opinion, in order to keep forward momentum and to continue building confidence for this team. Seton Hall is a rivalry game and anything can happen, but the Pirates are one of the toughest teams in the country and have beaten Rutgers by an average of 28 points the past two seasons. Playing on the road against Wisconsin and Michigan State will be daunting and these games will certainly be a barometer for Rutgers against the conference elite. Heck, Iowa will probably be close to double digit favorites when this game comes around, so tough sledding is definitely ahead.
Head coach Steve Pikiell has been trying to instill toughness in this team since he arrived on the banks. It’s been obvious his influence has improved that quality in the team quite a bit this season, both physically and mentally. This team hasn’t wilted under pressure once, displaying a never say die attitude in their lone loss at Miami. His emphasis on defense and rebounding has been a major reason for the 10-1 start. If Rutgers can continue to improve in both areas and bring a consistent focus and intensity with them on the road, it will translate in a positive way. How many wins that results in remains to be seen, but it’s important for Rutgers to be competitive at the beginning of Big Ten play, in order to build confidence for the rest of the schedule. Their first three road games are about as difficult as possible, so any positives bode well for the rest of the season.
There are winnable games in conference play this season if Rutgers keeps getting better and continues to gel as one unit. Of course, staying healthy is so important as well. So far this season, Rutgers has learned to win games down the stretch against teams they should beat. The next step is finishing out games against better competition and winning on the road in conference play. The reality is Pikiell’s first road win against a Big Ten opponent will also be the first in program history. This season is about progress and while Rutgers has a fighting chance at a .500 record or above, remember how many steps this team still has to climb. It starts Sunday at the Garden against Fordham.