As the last full week of January begins, the Rutgers men's basketball team sits with a 12-9 overall record and is 2-6 in conference play. With ten games remaining in the regular season, the Scarlet Knights still have a chance to accomplish two important milestones this season: produce the first winning campaign in 12 years and finish better than last place for the first time ever. Let's take a look at the schedule for the rest of the regular season and examine what Rutgers needs to do to accomplish both feats.
Let's start with avoiding a last place finish first. Rutgers is currently in 12th place with a 2-6 record in league play. Behind them are Iowa at 1-7 and Illinois at 0-7. Rutgers owns the tiebreaker over the Hawkeyes due to its win over them last week in what was the only regular season meeting between the two schools. However, Rutgers has two games against Illinois still to come this season. The first meeting is on January 31st on the road and the second is the regular season finale on February 25th at the RAC. Obviously, if Rutgers can sweep the Illini, they all but guarantee a better than last place finish. Even if they split the two games, they still have two more wins already in conference play, so Illinois would really need to catch fire down the stretch of the regular season to pass them. And for Iowa to pass Rutgers, they need to produce two more wins than the Scarlet Knights the rest of the way. At this point, you have to like Rutgers chances to finish better than at least one of those teams and because they play superior defense compared to them and already beat Iowa, they have the upper hand in finishing ahead of them both.
To ensure both goals are met, Rutgers needs to win five of its last ten regular season games to play. For a program that has never won more than three Big Ten regular season games in its only three previous campaigns, that magic number of five seems daunting. The truth is, even if the Scarlet Knights only win two of its last ten contests, it would still mark the most successful Big Ten campaign in four tries. While everyone associated with this program hopes for more than that, it’s important to keep perspective with the big picture.
Let’s look at the final ten games left on the schedule, with each team’s current KenPom ranking included (Rutgers #117):
1/24 - Home #67 Nebraska
1/27 - Away #63 Penn State
1/30 - Away #105 Illinois
2 / 3 - Home #2 Purdue
2 / 5 - Home #97 Indiana
2/10 - Away #67 Nebraska
2/13 - Home #90 Northwestern
2/17 - Away #38 Maryland
2/20 - Away #11 Ohio State
2/25 - Home #105 Illinois
Here is a realistic breakdown of the games Rutgers has the most likelihood to win, factoring in where they play these upcoming games:
Best chance to win: (All At RAC) Illinois , Northwestern , Indiana , Nebraska
All four opponents rank in the bottom half of the Big Ten on the offensive end, so Rutgers will have a real opportunity to beat them all at home, IF they can play to the way they are capable of defensively. Illinois and Northwestern are winless on the road in conference play so far, while Indiana and Nebraska each have one win away from home. Rutgers beat both Illinois and Nebraska at the RAC last season, while losing by single digits to Northwestern. Indiana hasn’t visited Picataway since they escaped with a 7 point victory in the Big Ten opener two seasons ago.
A fighter’s chance: At Illinois, At Penn State
Illinois is winless in Big Ten play, but have only had two home games, both of which they lost in overtime, so it won’t be easy by any means. Penn State is just 2-2 at home in Big Ten play and also lost to Rider at the buzzer in Happy Valley during the non-conference schedule. The Bryce Jordan Center has never been much of a home court advantage for the Nittany Lions and its the only place Rutgers has ever won a Big Ten game on the road during the regular season, doing so last year.
Winnable but very difficult: At Nebraska, At Maryland
The Cornhuskers are a different team at home, where they are 4-0 in Big Ten play and have ranked wins over Minnesota and Michigan. The Terps are also tougher at home, as they are 3-1 and the only setback was a 5 point loss to conference leader Purdue.
Unlikely: Purdue at home, At Ohio State
In my opinion, Rutgers has traditionally matched up the worst against Purdue versus any other Big Ten team since joining the conference four years ago. The last time the Boilermakers visited the RAC they produced the worst home loss in Rutgers history, winning by 50 points. Considering the Scarlet Knights lost by 31 points at Purdue earlier this season, there should be hope they’ll play better this time around. It would arguably be the biggest upset with any high major conference this season if Rutgers somehow pulled it off. As for at Ohio State, the Buckeyes just beat up the Scarlet Knights by 22 points just over a week ago. While Rutgers almost beat them in Columbus last season, they sit atop the conference standings at 8-0 with Purdue right now.
How many Big Ten regular season games can Rutgers win out of these remaining ten? Is five a pipe dream? Even if they won three or four games, it would still be a notable accomplishment. Remember, anything more than three regular season conference wins would be a program best since joining the Big Ten four seasons ago. The reality is for Rutgers to win any Big Ten game, they have to bring their “A” game on defense and shoot above their season averages on offense.
The most realistic scenario for Rutgers to complete a winning campaign is to secure four victories in its last ten. That would put them at 6-12 in conference play, doubling its previous best win total from last season and their overall record would be 16-15 and need to win the opener of the Big Ten Tournament.
What seed is most likely for Rutgers if they do end up with a 6-12 record? They would most like finish between 10th and 12th place, as that’s been the range the past three seasons for any Big Ten teams finishing 6-12 in the fourteen team conference. Would it actually benefit Rutgers to finish 11th and 12th, instead of 10th? Yes and no. By finishing in the bottom four of the conference, they would play on the opening day of the Big Ten Tournament and would be favored as the 11th or 12th seed. If they finish 10th, they would skip the opening day of the Big Ten Tournament for the first time since it joined the league and would play the 7th seed on Day 2. It would be a more difficult challenge to win that game. However, the Big Ten has been the wild, wild west after the top three teams this season and it could make for a wide open field in the conference tournament. I think it’s important to focus on Rutgers finishing as high in the Big Ten standings, regardless of what that means for their opening game at Madison Square Garden. Of course, finishing 10th or better and winning that first game would really be icing on the cake and result in major progress this season.
It’s important to note that five of the six conference losses for Rutgers this season so far are against the top 4 teams in standings. They've played the top three defenses in the league four times already. The bad news is that four of the top five teams currently at the top of the Big Ten standings they play twice this season. Rutgers still has four games against that group, including two with Nebraska and one each with the only two undefeated teams in the Big Ten, Purdue and Ohio State.
The good news is that the conference overall is having a down year, which is evident in where the Big Ten ranks among other conferences in KenPom, RPI and how poorly the group played in the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Can Rutgers make a serious jump this season and produce the first winning season in 12 years? There are lots of questions yet to be answered. Will senior captain Mike Williams return and if he does, how effective will he be? Can Rutgers win a Big Ten contest when Corey Sanders doesn’t have a strong offensive game? Can the bigs of Rutgers stay out of foul trouble and provide more offense moving forward? Will Issa Thiam get more touches and continue his hot streak from behind the arc (15 of 30 in his last 8 games)? Will Rutgers play stifling defense consistently enough to win close games? Can they continue to improve from the free throw line?
Only time will tell, but the fact that there is hope and that this team is starting to gain respect within the conference, both from coaches and the national media, is something in its own right. It’s not enough to justify this season as a success yet in terms of making forward progress after Steve Pikiell’s 15-18 debut campaign last year. However, with ten games to play in the regular season, Rutgers has a good chance to achieve one thing they never have (finish better than last place) and still has the possibility of having its first winning campaign in over a decade. Hope is a beautiful thing and it’s something that hasn’t been present on the banks when the calendar turns to February in some time. If this team keeps battling the way they have in 2018 so far, I wouldn’t bet against them accomplishing both feats, one way or another.