As you know by now, the Rutgers men’s basketball team picked up their first conference win of the season on Saturday, ending a seven game losing streak and bringing their overall record to 12-8, including 1-6 in Big Ten play. Now that the elephant has left the room and a winless conference season is off the table, it’s time to contemplate how many games Rutgers can win the rest of the way.
Defense and rebounding has given this team a chance to be competitive on any given night, but it’s still unlikely Rutgers will be able to knock off one of the top teams in the conference. However, I believe there are many winnable games left on the schedule. Nebraska was a quality win, as the Cornhuskers are currently ranked 7th in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency and 9th in defensive efficiency, making them very much a middle of the pack team so far. Nebraska’s KenPom ranking of #86 heading into the game, marks the best win for Rutgers since their upset of #2 Wisconsin in January 2015.
It should be noted that KenPom predicts a 4-14 record in Big Ten play for Rutgers, but only lists one more game as a probable victory. Rutgers is still far behind in the overall KenPom rankings, currently at #134, which is 44 spots behind the next Big Ten team in Iowa. They are currently ranked 14th in Big Ten play in offensive efficiency, but are a solid 8th in defensive efficiency. Don’t let that rank for defense fool you though, as the Big Ten is loaded with good defensive teams and Rutgers is ranked 55th in the country overall. Let’s look at six games that jump out as legitimate opportunities for Rutgers to add to their win total.
Tuesday, January 31st v. Iowa #90
KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 75-74, 52% chance to win
Iowa is currently 11th in offensive efficiency and 12th in defensive efficiency in Big Ten play this season through seven games. They are shooting just 33% from three-point range and start four freshman. Rutgers played them well on the road earlier this month, leading midway through the second half, before Big Ten leading scorer Peter Jok took over the game. The Hawkeyes did upset a very good Purdue team at home soon after, but they are 0-3 on the road in conference play, including a 35 point loss to Northwestern in their last away contest. Of any of the remaining games, I feel like this is Rutgers’ best chance to pick up another victory.
Saturday, February 4th At Penn State #79
KenPom Prediction: Penn State 72-64, 25% chance to win
After missing an opportunity to beat Penn State at home on New Year’s Day, they get a shot at redemption on the road in less than a couple of weeks. It won’t be easy, as Penn State currently holds the top defensive efficiency rating in Big Ten play this season. The good news is their offense isn’t much better than Rutgers, as the two teams are currently 13th and 14th respectively in the conference. If Rutgers can take care of the basketball against Penn State, who forces the most turnovers in the Big Ten, this game could come down to who wants it more. I expect a spirited effort in this game from Rutgers, who as a program are still searching for their first road win ever in conference play.
Wednesday, February 8th At Ohio State #58
KenPom Prediction: Ohio State 73-63, 18% chance to win
The Buckeyes have struggled this season and have won just one more conference game than Rutgers has. They are ranked 10th in both offensive and defensive efficiency in the Big Ten. They do give up a lot of offensive rebounds to their opponents, which plays to the strength of Rutgers. Ohio State is also not proficient in creating turnovers, more good news for a Scarlet Knights squad that has struggled with giving the ball away all season. The Buckeyes are not a deep team and have faltered near the end of several games this season. Aside from Penn State, this is the best chance Rutgers has to breakthrough on the road.
Saturday, February 11th v. Minnesota #38
KenPom Prediction: Minnesota 68-62, 30% chance to win
Minnesota is much improved this season and this will not be an easy contest by any means. However, the game is at the RAC and Minnesota has now lost three straight after starting 3-1 in conference play. The Golden Gophers are ranked just 12th in offensive efficiency in league play, but have been even better than Rutgers on the defensive end, as they currently sit 4th in defensive efficiency. They are the most efficient shot blocking team in the Big Ten, so points in the paint won’t be easy. Minnesota isn’t a good shooting team though, and Rutgers could force them into a battle at home if they play defense like they did against Nebraska this past weekend. I think they represent the best chance Rutgers has in upsetting a top 50 team this season.
Wednesday, February 22nd v. Michigan #43
KenPom Prediction: Michigan 67-64, 37% chance to win
Michigan is pretty much who they always are under coach John Beilein, an excellent offensive team focused on perimeter scoring, while being a finesse team that struggles on the defensive end. They are ranked 2nd in the Big Ten in offensive efficiency, but are dead last in defense. They average over 24 attempts from three-point range per game, making 38% on the season. However, Rutgers is defending the three exceptionally well in conference play, holding opponents to just 30% from behind the arc, second best in the Big Ten. If Michigan struggles from deep, Rutgers could pick them off at home, likely making it a physical, grind it out game the Wolverines like to avoid. They also match up well with Michigan on the boards, who are last in offensive rebounding in the league. In a recent loss at Illinois, Michigan shot over 50% from the field and committed only 8 turnovers, but still lost by 16 points due to terrible defense and a -14 rebounding margin.
Saturday, March 4th v. Illinois #72
KenPom Prediction: Illinois 67-66, 47% chance to win
Speaking of the Illini, they are 0-4 on the road in conference play and just 2-5 overall in the Big Ten. They have a big time scorer in Malcolm Hill, but they are 13th from three-point range as a team and are 13th in defensive efficiency in league play. They do defend opponents on the offensive glass well, but do not force a lot of turnovers. Rutgers lost a triple overtime heartbreaker at the RAC last season, so they will surely be looking for payback in the last home game of the season, which is senior night for CJ Gettys and walk-on Khalil Batie.
Before the season, I predicted a 4-14 record in Big Ten play and while that may appear to be the high end of the spectrum, after Saturday’s victory, there is reason to believe more wins will follow. The first six games of conference play were incredibly difficult, as three of the four road contests came against Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Indiana. Those are all programs with significantly more talent on their roster and are traditional conference powers. Rutgers simply doesn’t have the firepower to beat those type of teams right now, unless injuries and a lackluster effort become major factors for those type of opponents. However, the effort and fight that Rutgers is playing with on the court will give them a chance against the non-elite teams of the Big Ten.
Head coach Steve Pikiell has said many times this season that if they can defend and rebound, it will give them an opportunity to win games. Of course, this team needed a confidence boost and they got it in a big way with the dramatic win over Nebraska. Pikiell made this comment after Saturday’s win:
“It’s a tough league and you have to be well prepared. You have to deserve to win games. You can’t hope to win them, you have to deserve to win them. If we deserve to win, we will win more games. We can get on a little bit of a roll now. These guys know that they can breakthrough and have games like this and finish them. We can hang our hats on defense.”
Remember, Rutgers was 3-33 in regular season conference play entering year three in the Big Ten. If the “Fighting Pikiell’s” can continue to play hard and execute what the coaches are asking of them, they’ll have a legitimate shot at winning 3 to 5 games this season in the Big Ten. There are many areas in need of improvement, mostly on the offensive end, but let’s be honest, there is more to be optimistic about this team than Rutgers fans have had in several years. While Rutgers faces a tall task this week against ranked foes Maryland and Wisconsin, both away from the RAC, the second half of the conference schedule becomes more manageable. Focus on the tangible progress happening on the court and don’t give up on this team. If Rutgers continues in the right direction, more wins will follow.