The sun still rose this morning, even if it didn’t feel like it would after Wednesday night’s heartbreaking 66-65 loss to Penn State. The Rutgers men’s basketball team has made a lot of progress this season, but perhaps the most subjective way to measure how far this program has come is how much last night’s missed opportunity hurts so much. After playing perhaps its worst half of the season to open the game, Rutgers stormed back but missed three shots to win it on the last possession.
The reality is when looked through a big picture lense, Rutgers is still playing with house money. They already have more Big Ten wins this season than the previous two years combined, are currently tied with the highest KenPom ranking the program has ever finished a season with at 71, and they will still finish out of last place for the first time in five years since joining the Big Ten. If I wrote before the season that Rutgers would be in the position they are today, you’d be lying if you said you’d be unhappy with that progress.
There are 353 Division I basketball teams and KenPom lists Rutgers 328th in regard to experience. We’ll get more into this after the season, but if I asked who the best of the four freshman are, who would you answer? Would it depend on the day? I know I go back and forth myself. It’s a great question to be unsure of, as it is clear the freshmen four have bright futures at Rutgers.
Losses like last night, as well as the stomach punch defeat to Iowa and even the overtime loss at Illinois are as Dave White wrote after the game, a necessary part of this rebuild. This team is still learning quite a bit about how to handle success and adversity, as well as end of game situations. The good news is this team fights and plays together. If you expected Rutgers to be on the brink of victory in the final minute of the game after trailing by 18 points at the half, you were more optimistic than I was.
Head coach Steve Pikiell has said many times that he recruits players who are grinders that eat, sleep and breath basketball: gym rats. He now has a roster full of them. Losses like last night will bring the best out of true competitors and keep them working the entire offseason to get better. As disappointing as last night’s game was, I’m actually encouraged after this game due to the gutsy way they fought to the bitter end. This team and core of young players want to change the perception of Rutgers basketball in the long term and already have to a degree.
We all hoped for more with another victory last night, but hope, even in the short term through the rest of this season, is not lost. So where does Rutgers stand with one game left in the regular season?
Rutgers can still finish anywhere between 8th place and 12th place in the Big Ten final regular season standings. There are still some other variables to consider, but this we know: beat Indiana on Sunday and Rutgers will finish no worse than 10th place. Lose and they’ll play in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament next Wednesday. They still control their own destiny.
IF the following happens: Wisconsin beats Ohio State & Penn State beats Illinois & Rutgers beats Indiana THEN Rutgers would finish in 8th place and play against the Buckeyes on Thursday in Chicago. Indiana destroyed Illinois on Thursday night. The Hoosiers own the tiebreak over Rutgers if they were to win on Sunday. This is important because if Rutgers loses against Indiana and Penn State beats Illinois, both Sunday noon games, than the Scarlet Knights would finish in 12th place behind them all.
Hang on tight, the end of the regular season is going to be a roller coaster ride. Even though our hearts got ripped out Wednesday night after another last second loss, Rutgers still has a lot to play for on Sunday, including a .500 regular season record overall. That fact alone is major progress this season. And even if they lose, they’ve long ago ensured the program’s best finish since joining the Big Ten. If they have to play in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament once again, they’ll play either Nebraska or Northwestern, two teams they’ve already beaten. Rutgers will have an opportunity to make another run once again. The most important takeaway is the worst case scenario for how Rutgers finishes the Big Ten regular season is still better than ever before.
Note: The day after a stomach punch loss, listening to this podcast hosted by Rutgers play by play announcer Jerry Recco is the perfect elixir. It’s most insightful interview with coach I’ve ever heard and it should make you even more confident that the program is headed in the right direction under Steve Pikiell.