With last night’s win over Morgan State, Rutgers stands with a 7-1 record, equaling their win total from all of last season with a full three weeks before Christmas. That’s quite a turnaround, as Rutgers finished non-conference play last year with a record of 6-7. Granted, there were more challenging opponents on the slate a year ago, but it’s also clear last season’s team would have had more trouble against the weaker opponents this current team has dispatched so far. However, it still hasn’t been easy, as Rutgers has trailed at the half against North Texas (4-4), escaped from a 13 point deficit with 5 minutes left in the game against Hartford (2-7), and were losing 19-12 last night midway through the first half to Morgan State (2-6). All three of those teams have a KenPom ranking above #300. Slow starts and failing to execute on offense for long stretches is something Rutgers must improve on as the competition ramps up dramatically very soon.
Even so, Rutgers is much improved on the defensive end and is rebounding leaps and bounds better so far this season. The effort of this team on the floor has been encouraging and the depth of the roster is drastically better, with eight players averaging at least 5 points a game and seven players averaging 4 rebounds or more. Head coach Steve Pikiell has led the program to their best start in many years and the team seems to have completely bought into all the changes made by the new coaching staff. Progress has been made early one, but hopefully there is more to come.
So the question now is with five games left on the schedule before Big Ten play begins, can Rutgers finish non-conference play with ten wins? Considering they’ve gone just 20-19 the past three seasons combined, with eight being the most of any year, winning ten games before the conference gauntlet begins would be another sign of progress. Let’s look at the remaining schedule and what the chances are for Rutgers to secure double figure wins before Santa Claus arrives.
Central Connecticut State (2-4); KenPom #338
The Blue Devils finished last season as the worst rated program in the KenPom rankings (#351) and are certainly a team Rutgers should beat at the RAC this coming Tuesday. First year head coach Donyell Marshall has CC State playing better this season, as they have beaten Hartford and Maine, two teams they lost against last year. Even so, this is a game Rutgers needs to take control of from the start and dominate throughout.
Stony Brook (2-5); KenPom #234
Despite their record, this will not be an easy game for Rutgers. It will mark Steve Pikiell’s return to the program he built from a bottom feeder into a perennial power. Stony Brook negotiated this game on the schedule when Rutgers hired Pikiell away last spring. New head coach Jeff Boals, the former Ohio State assistant, would love to beat Pikiell in his return to the Long Island school. It will also probably be the loudest away crowd Rutgers will have faced up to this point, as the environments at DePaul and Miami were not hostile at all. It’s a game Rutgers should win, but they will need a strong effort next Saturday to get on the bus the victors after this road game. KenPom currently gives the Scarlet Knights a 52% chance of winning this matchup.
Fairleigh Dickinson (2-5); KenPom #278
I’ll be honest, this game has worried me for awhile now. Rutgers is certainly the better team, but this is the type of program they have lost to in recent years. In fact, FDU beat Rutgers 73-72 in the 2013-2014 season. FDU always get up for this game and Rutgers cannot sleep on them. Just ask Ohio State, who held just a 1 point lead at the half and won by only 8 points in yesterday’s game against FDU. Rutgers needs to take care of business in this one or risk losing the positive momentum they’ve built in the non-conference slate. FDU will be pesky and will not roll over in this one.
Fordham (5-4); KenPom #180
This game will be played at Madison Square Garden two Sundays from now as part of the annual Holiday Festival, with St. John’s and Penn State playing in the other game. Fordham has struggled at times this season, suffering a bad 1 point loss to Sacred Heart last week. Still, they’re a scrappy team attempting to move up the ladder within the Atlantic 10 under second year head coach Jeff Neubauer. KenPom currently gives Rutgers a 53% chance of winning this game.
Seton Hall (5-2) KenPom #46
After decades of close battles, Rutgers has lost the last two meetings by 27 and 29 points, respectively. While Seton Hall is learning to play without last season’s star guard Isaiah Whitehead, they still have plenty of weapons. The Hall beat Iowa earlier this season and lost to a very good Florida team by just 5 points. This December 23rd matchup closes out the non-conference schedule for Rutgers on the road at the Prudential Center in Newark. It’s a perfect final test before Big Ten play begins, but it will be a major challenge as well.
Ten or more wins in non-conference play would be a major accomplishment for Rutgers after the past three seasons, regardless of the weak strength of schedule this year. It makes perfect sense that Rutgers scheduled the way they did this season and it’s imperative they take advantage of it, which they have so far. The real key is avoiding a slip up against a team like FDU. Also, Stony Brook and Fordham are huge swing games that could solidify a terrific non-conference record for Rutgers if they can sweep them. I’m not even worried about Seton Hall, as Rutgers has been tripped up so often in years past, losing to teams on the schedule they shouldn’t have on paper. Let’s get to that game with double figure wins and then hope for a much more competitive contest with our blood rival this season.
This season is about progress and truth be told, so far, so good. Sure, Rutgers is a flawed team, as they’ve struggled shooting all season and have been careless with the basketball at times. Their defensive intensity needs to be more consistent and they’ve allowed bad teams to control tempo too often. However, this team is much more likeable than in recent seasons. They have dramatically improved their defense and rebounding under Pikiell, which if it continues, will gives them a fighting chance against a good portion of their Big Ten opponents.
Winning ten games before conference play would be a tangible mark of progress this season. I think they can do it and that they have a legitimate chance to finish the non-conference slate at 11-2. Every Rutgers fan would have been thrilled to sign on the dotted line before the season for that record. And honestly, 9-4 sounded pretty good too. So, as Rutgers plays their last five games before the Big Ten schedule starts, remember expectations before the season began. If Rutgers does slip up and loses a game we all think they should win, it will be disappointing for sure. Regardless, this team is moving in the right direction and if they win at least three of the next five games, they will finish with ten or more non-conference wins. That would certainly be something worth celebrating and the fact that it’s even a possibility in December is progress alone.