UPDATE: Rutgers will play Ohio State this Wednesday at 7pm. The winner will play Northwestern. To read why I am optimistic for this game, click here.
After a thrilling victory yesterday over Illinois, Rutgers established a program best three Big Ten wins in a season, equaling their total from the two previous years. In addition, it was their fourteenth win overall this season, doubling last year’s total. Now we can turn our attention towards the Big Ten Tournament, which begins this Wednesday, March 8th. Rutgers is set at the 14th seed and will play whichever team finishes in 11th place. Which team that is will be determined in tonight’s game between Michigan and Nebraska. The game is in Lincoln and being aired on BTN at 8pm.
Depending on the outcome, Rutgers will either play Indiana or Ohio State. Those two teams played yesterday, with the Hoosiers winning 96-92 and both programs finished conference play with a 7-11 record. By Indiana winning, it eliminated any chance of Penn State or Nebraska finishing 11th, regardless of whether those two teams win today or not. Here is a full breakdown of scenarios from BTN from Friday, which I then was able to determine an updated outlook based on yesterday’s league results.
If Nebraska wins tonight at home, they will finish ahead of both Indiana and Ohio State, due to tiebreakers. They beat the Hoosiers and split a season series with the Buckeyes in conference play. In this scenario, Nebraska would finish 10th, Indiana 11th, and Ohio State 12th.
If Michigan defeats Nebraska, Indiana will then finish 10th, Ohio State 11th, and Nebraska would finish either 12th or 13th based on the outcome of the Penn State-Iowa game.
Michigan defeated Nebraska in their first meeting back in January 91-85 in Ann Arbor. Nebraska’s best home victory during conference play was over Big Ten champion Purdue, so they are certainly capable of winning tonight, despite coming in on a three game losing streak. The Wolverines have won 5 of 7, but lost to Northwestern on that amazing buzzer beater this past Wednesday. KenPom is predicting a 70-66 win for Michigan tonight.
From a Rutgers perspective, it will be interesting to watch tonight’s game unfold. Despite Indiana’s struggles this season, they are certainly still a very talented team. They have one of the best offenses in the Big Ten are 30th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. Their biggest weakness on offense is that they turn the ball over at a very high rate, ranking 322nd in the country in turnover rate. On defense, they have the worst efficiency rating in the Big Ten.
Rutgers lost at Indiana 76-57 back in January in a game they turned it over 21 times. Coach Pikiell had cited seven of those resulted in easy transition baskets for the Hoosiers. The good news is Rutgers has shown great improvement in this area, averaging only 10 turnovers per game in their last seven contests. The other plus is that Indiana’s OG Anunoby, who swiped 7 steals in their first meeting, is out for the season.
In regards to the prospects of playing Ohio State, Rutgers lost in Columbus by the score of 70-64 in early February. The game was tied with just over a minute remaining, despite the fact that Corey Sanders fouled out with more than five minutes to play. The Buckeyes have the best free throw rate in the Big Ten and are shooting 71% from the line in conference play. They also have the worst defensive efficiency rating in the Big Ten, aside from Indiana.
It’s hard to say which team really is a better matchup, but there is no denying that Indiana’s James Blackmon Jr. is the best offensive player on either team. He is their leading scorer at 17.0 points per game and is shooting 46% from the field, 84% from the line, and 41% from three-point range.
Either way, this opening round game on Wednesday is a tremendous opportunity for Rutgers to continue to change perception of the program around the Big Ten. They certainly turned heads this season in making significant improvement on the court, but even after yesterday’s win over Illinois, the national narrative was the shock of the Illini losing to Rutgers. A win over either Indiana or Ohio State would help build more credibility and signal that real change is happening under first year coach Steve Pikiell. It would give him and the staff real momentum heading into the offseason on the recruiting trail.
I’ll have a full preview of their opening round matchup, as well as a look at the entire Big Ten Tournament in the next couple of days. For now, keep an eye on the Michigan-Nebraska score tonight. No matter who they play, Rutgers has to feel good heading to Washington D.C. after yesterday’s victory.