If the Rutgers men’s basketball team this season ultimately ends a decade and a half drought without a winning campaign and postseason berth, a four game stretch in December will likely be a major reason why. The Scarlet Knights, who begin the season on November 7th at the RAC against Bryant, will play seven non-conference games in the opening month, highlighted by two Atlantic 10 opponents, St. Bonaventure, who they’ll play at a neutral site in Toronto, and UMASS at home the day after Thanksgiving. Both of those contests are important too, but as November ends, a crucial stretch for this team arrives.
In an 11 day stretch between December 3rd and December 14th, Rutgers will play back to back road games at Pittsburgh and Michigan State, followed by home games against Wisconsin and Seton Hall. No matter what your expectations are for Steve Pikiell’s fourth season, we will know far more about this team after this extremely challenging period has passed.
Playing Pittsburgh is part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and is an intriguing matchup for both sides. Pitt went 14-19 last season in head coach Jeff Capel’s first year and finished in the KenPom rankings at no. 101. Like Rutgers, they were a young team and are expected to take a step forward, if not more, this season. For perspective, RU went 14-17 last season and finished with a KenPom ranking of 78th. Even in a rebuilding year, Pitt beat KenPom top 25 teams Louisville and Florida State at home last season. Rutgers hasn’t had a lot of success on the road of late against high major teams, particularly in Big Ten play. However, they did beat Miami last season on the road as part of this event and it’s important they win at Pitt this December. They return Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowens in the backcourt, both of whom averaged double figures in scoring last season and should be even better as sophomores. With a non-conference schedule light on Top 100 high major teams, this is a golden opportunity to pick up a quality victory and strengthen their resume.
Rutgers will then open Big Ten play with a two game set in early December for the third year in a row since the conference moved to a 20 game schedule. For the third straight season, the Scarlet Knights will play Michigan State during the first week of December. The Spartans went to the Final Four last season with a 32-7 and a final KenPom ranking of no. 3. Unanimous preseason Big Ten Player of the Year selection Cassius Winston leads preseason favorite MSU, who are loaded once again with talent throughout the roster. Xavier Tillman, Josh Langford and Aaron Henry also return, while preseason favorite to win Big Ten Freshman of the Year Rocket Watts enters the fold. Rutgers shocked Sparty by leading at the half in East Lansing last season, before getting steamrolled after the break. They’ll visit this season with even more confidence, especially if they are coming off a road victory at Pitt.
After two challenging road games, Rutgers returns to the RAC for a massive two game homestand. Wisconsin visits on Wednesday, December 11th and were picked sixth in the Big Ten preseason media poll. They went 23-11 last season and despite losing in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament, they finished with a KenPom ranking of 16th overall. Rutgers actually beat Wisconsin when they last visited the RAC in January 2018. While the Badgers are led by a strong veteran core of Brevin Pritzl, Brad Davison, D’Mitrick Rice, and Nate Reuvers, I believe Rutgers has more versatility and depth. A key factor this season in order for Rutgers to make a jump forward in the Big Ten standings this season is winning most of their conference games at the RAC and this contest is an opportunity to establish a strong defense of their homecourt.
Last but certainly not least, Rutgers hosts blood rival Seton Hall at the RAC on Saturday, December 14th. The Pirates are likely to be a top 15 ranked team when they visit, which is what they were the last time they came to Piscataway, which resulted in a stunning defeat at the hands of RU. Head coach Kevin Willard led SHU to the NCAA Tournament for a fourth consecutive year last season with a 20-14 record and no. 60 KenPom ranking. It was a rebuilding year for Seton Hall and expectations are very high this season, as they were selected the preseason favorite to win the Big East. Myles Powell is one of the best players in the country and the Jersey native will most certainly have his team ready to play. They have athletic players on the perimeter to matchup with Rutgers as well, like Myles Cale and Quincy McKnight. As wild as the RAC was two seasons ago, it should be even crazier with Rutgers playing with greater expectations and a 4 p.m. tip-off time as well.
While Rutgers could stumble during this four game stretch and not necessarily damper the season as a whole, it would certainly bolster hope that this team will achieve real progress in 2019-2020 if they at least split with a 2-2 record. Three of these opponents are likely to be ranked, with Pitt as the exception, and Rutgers can make a real statement by beating at least one of them, if not more. Proving to be a team just as capable of winning on the road is so important as well. We saw a flash to be able to do that in their dominant performance against a ranked Iowa team on the road last season and beating Pitt would be a good start this winter.
The season begins exactly four weeks from today. While every game on the schedule is worth being excited about, circling this week and a half stretch in the beginning of December is a must. How Rutgers plays leading up to and after this period is obviously important, but we will truly learn how high the ceiling is for this team with how they play against these four opponents ahead of final exams and Christmas.