It’s has begun. The transformation of the Rutgers men’s basketball program has progressed past the developmental stage and is now in full bloom. In what was one of the most complete performances for this program in the last decade plus, the Scarlet Knights delivered a statement victory at no. 22/21 Iowa on Saturday night. It was how they won that made it even more impressive. A key sign of this team taking a significant step forward is how they are imposing its will and taking away strengths of Big Ten opponents. They held the Hawkeyes to 36% shooting, 10% worse than its season average, and outshot them from three-point range to boot. Rutgers held a double digit lead for almost the entire second half, it wasn’t a close game at all.
Even when this team loses now, it brings the best out of its opponents in order for them to be overtaken. The last three losses were an overtime shootout at Illinois, the last second bank corner three to Iowa, and falling at Michigan State after leading by 11 points early in the second half. It’s more than Rutgers not being a pushover anymore. They have actually become a very dangerous team.
By looking at some of the things that this team has already accomplished in Steve Pikiell’s third season, we can then look at the possibilities of what can still be achieved during what has already been a program changing campaign.
After starting Big Ten play with a record of 1-38 on the road, Rutgers has now won 3 of its last 6. They hadn’t won a road game in three of its first four seasons in the league, including last year. Now they have picked up its first ranked road victory in 11 years since upsetting then no. 13 PITT. They did so with its two leading scorers failing to reach double figures and three freshman scoring 10 or more points. It also broke a 38 game losing streak against ranked foes on the road.
The win was the seventh for Rutgers in conference play this season. It’s the most regular season league victories for this program since the 2005-2006 campaign when the Scarlet Knights went 7-9 in the Big East. They’ve now equaled the same amount of Big Ten regular season wins Rutgers had in the three previous seasons combined. They’ve gone 6-5 in its last 11 games.
After finishing in last place in all four previous seasons in the Big Ten, Rutgers officially clinched a better than basement year-end result with the win over Iowa. At 7-11 in the conference, you can sip your morning coffee knowing that Rutgers is in sole possession of 9th place with just two games to go in the regular season. In a year that the minimum goal was to avoid a last place finish in the Big Ten, Pikiell has this team on the verge of finishing right in the middle of the conference standings.
The Scarlet Knights have now beaten eight teams ranked in the KenPom Top 100 & six teams in the Top 50 this season. They’ve never owned eight regular season wins over top 100 foes since the KenPom rankings began during the 2001-2002 season. (They won nine in the 2003-2004 season, but only five came in the regular season). Rutgers had four Top 50 wins in the previous six seasons combined and now they’ve more than exceeded that this year. They had just one last year against Seton Hall and zero in Pikiell’s first season.
As of Sunday, Rutgers has a KenPom rank of 68, which if the season finished today, would be the best ranking for the program since KenPom began almost two decades ago (2006’s 71 ranking was the program’s best all-time). They began this season ranked 149th and have improved the most of any high major team in college basketball by moving up 81 spots as of Sunday. Three years ago, Rutgers was the lowest ranked high major team at 279. I’ll get more into the KenPom rankings after the season, but this team has the chance to be the program’s most efficient squad since KenPom’s rankings system began measuring advanced statistics.
In all that Rutgers has accomplished this season, what they can still achieve in regard to showing progress before this team’s run comes to an end later this month is reason to be excited. Their two remaining contests in the regular season are foes they’ve already beaten this season. With a home game and senior night against Penn State (12-17; 5-13), Rutgers has a chance to finish 5-5 at the RAC during Big Ten play, as well as sweep the season series against the Nittany Lions. With Illinois (10-18; 6-11) and Indiana (15-14; 6-12) each with one less win and playing each other the day after, a win over PSU would guarantee Rutgers a finish of no worse than 11th place with a good chance of at least 10th place. Then the Scarlet Knights end the regular season on senior day at Indiana. IF they win both, THEN Rutgers could finish as high as 8th place, as Minnesota (18-11; 8-10) is just one game ahead of them and hosts no. 14 and first place Purdue (22-7; 15-3) and visits no. 17 Maryland (21-8; 12-6) next week.
Just the fact that the previous paragraph is true shows how far this program has come in such a short time under Steve Pikiell. They still have a ways to go before achieving the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in almost three decades, but what this team has a chance of accomplishing down the stretch this season is incredible. It’s all about context and perspective, as close observers of this program know that this rebuild has already come a long way and feels legitimate and sustainable. To not only finish out of the bottom four of the Big Ten, but to have a real chance for middle of the pack result is astonishing for where this team was even last season.
In my opinion, the ultimate goal of this campaign would be to break the 13 year streak of having a losing season. At 14-14, Rutgers can essentially clinch a winning season by beating both Penn State and Indiana. Now it could be at risk IF the Scarlet Knights were invited to the NIT, but I find that prospect unlikely unless they won these two and then won two more in the Big Ten Tournament. In which case a winning season would be assur d.
While Rutgers has taken a few steps forward this season, a true hurdle to jump over is producing a non-losing season, which can also be accomplished by splitting the next two games and going 1-1 in the conference tournament, which would result in a .500 record. A winning season, even without an NIT bid, would be unexpected and seriously change the narrative around this program. With the 2020 recruiting class a vital one for Steve Pikiell, it would bring significant momentum on the recruiting trail into this offseason.
No matter what happens the rest of the way, it’s clear as day that Rutgers has made significant progress in Pikiell’s third season. They could lose the final two regular season games and lose their first Big Ten Tournament game, finish 14-17 and still have exceeded preseason expectations for this team. This team is playing with house money and getting better by the game. They are hitting their stride down the stretch of this season and will be favored at the RAC on Wednesday for the second straight conference home game for the first time in years. Enjoy the journey and don’t be surprised if the best case scenario doesn’t pan out this season. Even so, it’s safe to say no Rutgers basketball fan wants this season to end, which is a step forward in and of itself and a true measure of progress for this program.