The 2017-2018 men’s basketball season doesn’t tip-off until mid-November, but the schedule is starting to take shape. The Big Ten is a few months away from announcing their conference schedule, but the non-conference portion is coming together. Like it or not, don’t expect many big name programs or more than a couple road games next season. There are a few reasons for this.
The reality is that producing 10 or more wins in non-conference play is very important for Rutgers from a perception standpoint in recruiting, as the program continues to rebuild. Also, no matter who is added to the roster for next season, the overall talent base will still be less in comparison to the other Big Ten rosters. As of right now, Rutgers needs to fill two spots to replace the production of CJ Gettys and Nigel Johnson. There is no reason to panic and start thinking that they will fail to do so, as they have been recruiting aggressively. Remember, Gettys and Eugene Omoruyi were not added until last August. The bottom line is that Rutgers needs to grab as many wins in the non-conference portion as they can, in order to give them a chance to improve on last season’s 15-18 record.
Another aspect to consider, which will be unique to next season, is that two Big Ten games will be played during the first week of December. This is due to the conference tournament taking place at Madison Square Garden, one week earlier than usual. As we know from playing in the Big East Tournament for two decades, it is always played at the Garden. In order for the Big Ten to pull off their own tournament at MSG, they needed to schedule it a week earlier in order to make it happen.
How Big Ten schools handle this scheduling change in regards to their non-conference portion will be interesting to watch. What motivation does a program in the bottom half of the conference have in scheduling 4-5 games against high major programs, or even traditionally successful mid-major programs, when they’ll have two conference games in between? Will teams fit in their entire non-conference schedule before the new year, which is customary, or will non-conference games be scheduled in January, February, or even after the Big Ten Tournament in March? No one is going to want to have a challenging non-conference game in January or February, smack in the middle of Big Ten play. Will teams that have NCAA aspirations really be happy with having almost two weeks off from their last game due to the conference tournament being so early? Whether they attempt to schedule a non-conference game during the week other high major conferences have their tournaments remains to be seen.
In regards to what we know so far with Rutgers, let’s first look at the opponents that are set, either due to contracts in place or based on reports that have surfaced. Rutgers finished #135th in the KenPom rankings last season. Their strength of non-conference schedule was #347th out of 351 teams for last season. That type of schedule made since in Pikiell’s first season and a significantly harder slate this year should not be expected. When comparing the Rutgers rebuild to Northwestern recently, it was clear a key for head coach Chris Collins in improving their record year over year was maintaining a relatively low level of difficulty in the non-conference schedule. It appears that Pikiell is implementing the same philosophy. Let’s break it all down.
This game is confirmed and the rivalry contest has been coined the Garden State Hardwood Classic for the past three seasons, with Seton Hall winning every meeting. This year’s game will be played at the RAC and according to Jerry Carino of Gannett, the matchup will be played on a Saturday in mid-December.
Barring a late shuffle, it looks like Seton Hall-Rutgers is targeted for Sat, Dec. 16 at the RAC. Mark your calendar; place will be packed— Jerry Carino (@NJHoopsHaven) April 11, 2017
It’s a positive this game will be played in the second half of the non-conference portion, so Rutgers can hopefully develop some as a team before meeting their blood rival. They’ll have two Big Ten games under their belt before this matchup, so they’ll be battle tested. There is no reason why this game shouldn’t be a sellout. This will likely be the toughest game on the non-conference schedule this season.
Rutgers will host Fordham as part of its 2017-18 non-conference schedule, per a source.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) April 18, 2017
Rutgers played Fordham last season at Madison Square Garden as part of the Holiday Festival. This year, they’ll play the Atlantic 10 school at the RAC. I like this matchup on the schedule and frankly wish Rutgers would play one other school in the A-10 conference. More on that in a bit.
There was a clause in Steve Pikiell’s contract at Stony Brook that mandated a home and home series with whichever school he was hired by. Hence, Rutgers played at the Long Island school last season, with the Seawolves making the trip to Piscataway this season. They are a solid opponent to have on the schedule.
Rutgers will host FDU as part of its 2017-18 non-conference schedule, per a source.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) April 25, 2017
Despite FDU’s record last season, they are a solid add to the non-conference schedule. They are a local program that is typically competitive and they gave Ohio State a scare on the road last season. It’s certainly a team Rutgers should handle, but also not a complete cupcake either.
I've been told Rutgers-NJIT is on the docket for next season. Good Jersey matchup. Like Princeton, NJIT has trouble finding opponents.— Jerry Carino (@NJHoopsHaven) December 3, 2016
I liked this addition, as I want Rutgers to play as many local programs in the tri-state area as possible. While NJIT doesn’t have the appeal of playing Monmouth or Princeton, this game is far more appealing than Central Arkansas at the RAC. NJIT had a down year last season, but have been competitive in recent years, including winning at Michigan a couple of years ago. Like FDU, this game will be a test, but one that Rutgers should ultimately ace.
Rutgers will host Hartford as part of its 2017-18 non-conference schedule, per a source.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) April 23, 2017
The Hartford game was one of the most exciting last season, as Rutgers came back from a double digit deficit late in the second half to win on a CJ Gettys last second shot. Hopefully, this season’s matchup isn’t nearly as close, as Hartford is simply a bad basketball team.
ACC/Big Ten Challenge
This annual game is set between the two conferences, its just a matter of who Rutgers will be paired against. They’ve played Clemson, Wake Forest, and Miami the previous three seasons that Rutgers has been a member of the Big Ten. In terms of home or away, Rutgers played last season’s contest on the road, so it’s likely they will get a game at the RAC. Let’s hope this season’s matchup is Boston College, who had a KenPom ranking of #173 and were just 9-23 last season. That would be a winnable game for sure. It’s possible Rutgers could be matched with another former Big East foe in Syracuse, who had a KenPom ranking of #55 and a record of 19-15. Maybe the conferences tie in the Jim Valvano connection and schedule Rutgers-N.C. State. The Wolfpack are in rebuilding mode as well after a 15-17 record, KenPom ranking of #109 and a coaching change.
To be clear, these are guesses on my part. Who knows, maybe the ACC will send Pikiell’s alma mater UConn to the RAC to play....oh wait, I’m sorry, they are in the AAC. Chuckle, chuckle. Moving on.
That’s seven games pretty much confirmed, so now let’s look at how the other six games of the non-conference schedule could be filled.
Rutgers has played in the Gavitt Games the past two seasons, which matches the Big East against the Big Ten. The issue is the Big East only has ten teams, so four Big Ten teams don’t participate each season. With Rutgers playing at St. John’s and DePaul the past two years, it’s possible they get a home game this season. It’s also possible they are due to be skipped entirely. If they were selected, it would be one of their more difficult opponents on the schedule.
I’d say playing Central Connecticut State is pretty much a lock and I even thought I had seen a report confirming, but I could not find it. Rutgers has played the Blue Devils in each of the past two seasons and they are coached by fellow UConn alum Donyell Marshall. Their KenPom ranking of #341 and a 6-23 record from last season would make them likely the worst team on the schedule for next year. Again, not confirmed, but I think it’s likely.
Other potential candidates to consider, assuming the scheduling philosophy is similar to last season, are as follows:
(Team, KenPom rank, last season’s record)
Drexel, #250, 9-23; Colgate, #268, 10-22; Delaware, #290, 13-20; UMass-Lowell, #295, 11-20; Sacred Heart, #301, 13-19; Marist, #312, 8-24; Binghamton, #314, 12-20; Lafayette, #330, 9-21; St. Francis NY, #346, 4-27.
To be clear, I’m mentioning these schools as possibilities, but I have no inside information in regards to these teams being scheduled. With that being said, Rutgers did play Drexel and UMass-Lowell once in the past two seasons. Out of this group, I suspect at least a couple of them will be scheduled, but again, it’s just an educated guess on my part.
I’ll end with two suggestions/hopes for next season.
Play A Bottom Tier Ivy League School
Give up the idea that Rutgers will play Princeton anytime soon. I wish they would, but I don’t expect it even as a possibility until Rutgers becomes more competitive under Pikiell. Instead, here are four teams that Rutgers would be expected to beat, but it would also keep an east coast focus and add a team from a respected league to the non-conference schedule.
Columbia, #235, 11-16; Cornell, #263, 8-21; Brown, #277, 13-17; Dartmouth, #305, 7-20.
Play A Road Game
As of right now, it’s possible Rutgers won’t leave the RAC until 2018, with the exception of one of the two Big Ten games in early December. I understand the need to pick up wins in the non-conference schedule, but I hope they consider playing one mid-major school that is relatively local that would be a winnable game away from the RAC. This would help in developing the team ahead of Big Ten play on the road. Here are a few ideas:
LaSalle, #140, 15-15; UMASS, #157, 15-18; St. Joseph’s, #183, 11-20; Manhattan, #287, 10-22.
In regards to future scheduling beyond this coming season, it would be exciting for Rutgers to book a home & home series with a high major program. I’m not talking about playing North Carolina or Florida, which Rutgers has done multiple times over the past decade plus. I mean playing a middle-to-bottom tiered SEC school like Auburn, Georgia, Texas A&M, or Mississippi State. Also, playing a neutral site game at MSG, the Barclays Center, or Nassau Coliseum against another high major would be appealing, both for fans and recruits. It does seem Rutgers will not be playing in a non-exempt early season tournament this year, as most are booked, so hopefully they do so the following season. And of course, at some point down the road, perhaps Pikiell’s 4th season when the 2018 class are sophomores, adding Princeton would be fantastic. It would restore a century old rivalry that many longtime alums yearn for.
Again, I understand the importance of getting as many wins as possible in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Winning 10-12 games outside of the Big Ten is imperative for Rutgers to improve on their record from this past season (15-18). Would Rutgers really get credit in the public eye for going 8-5 in non-conference play, even if they played a schedule with a high level of difficulty? Not likely.
At the same time, they need to a schedule that will prepare them for the rigors of Big Ten play as well. It’s a tough balancing act and that’s why I hope whatever perceived lesser opponents do get scheduled, they are more local and appealing than a team like North Texas. Who they are matched with in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, as well as the Gavitt Games, along with the Seton Hall game, will likely be the highlights. Expect the overall non-conference schedule to be very similar to last season. With the Big Ten projected to be better than this past season, they’ll need as many wins outside of conference play as possible.