The Big Ten announced the conference matchups for men’s basketball next season on Wednesday, which will include 20 league games for the second consecutive year. Each Big Ten team will play six opponents once (three home & three away) and seven opponents twice (both home & away). As usual since joining the Big Ten, Rutgers received what on paper is a difficult league schedule. Let’s break it down.
Home/Away: Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Nebraska, Penn State, Purdue, Wisconsin
Out of the seven opponents the Scarlet Knights will face twice next season, four of them finished in the top five of the league standings this past season. They include co-Big Ten champion Purdue, third place Michigan, fourth place Wisconsin, and fifth place Maryland. Rutgers finished tied for tenth place with Penn State and Illinois last season, but lost the tiebreaker to both to earn the 12th seed in the conference tournament. They finished one game better than Nebraska, but lost to them in the opening round in Chicago.
In regard to how these teams look ahead of next season, it’s obviously too early to make any definitive judgement’s, as the transfer portal is flooded with players on the move, NBA declarations won’t be decided until June and the late signing period for the class of 2019 opened on Wednesday. However, Purdue, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Maryland will all likely have to replace their leading scorers. Still, those four teams will likely all be projected to finish in the top half of the conference. Illinois has been a bad matchup for Rutgers since Brad Underwood has been there the past two seasons and will be a chic pick to move up the conference ladder next season. Penn State could be improved as well, as they finished the Big Ten slate winning 7 of its last 10 regular season games and could return a strong nucleus, including First Team All-Big Ten performer Lamar Stevens. Nebraska is the one team that will likely be similar or worse on paper next season, as they have lost its three best players and new head coach Fred Hoiberg has a lot of roster spots to fill.
With all that being said, Rutgers should be expected to take a leap forward next season as well, it’s just a matter of how much of one. After looking at last season’s schedule, I certainly wouldn’t have expected Rutgers to go 6-8 against the opponents they played twice. However, that’s exactly what they did and were painfully close from finishing 8-6 after gut wrenching, last second losses to Iowa and Penn State.
Home: Indiana, Minnesota, Northwestern
The short of it is Rutgers has a chance to win all three of these games at the RAC. Indiana loses its top two players but will undoubtedly reload. Minnesota loses a ton with all-league performers Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey gone. Northwestern is my pick for last place again next season. For Rutgers to finish next season with an overall winning record and be in the mix for the postseason, winning all three of these games would be huge.
Away: Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State
Not an easy road slate of opponents they are only playing once. Michigan State is coming off a Final Four and while they will have plenty of stars to replace, including Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston, they are loaded with talent. Ohio State should be improved and Rutgers has never won there. Iowa could lose both Tyler Cook and Joe Wieskamp to the NBA, so how their roster looks remains to be seen.
Overall Rapid Reaction
At first glance this is a very challenging schedule, but it is the Big Ten, so that should be expected every season. On paper, I would have preferred seeing Northwestern and Minnesota twice, but it wasn’t meant to be. The bottom line is that the offseason is about Rutgers getting better and if they can do that, they will certainly have the opportunity to make even more progress in Big Ten play next season. As I wrote here, who head coach Steve Pikiell adds as an assistant coach and how the staff fill out the roster is the first step towards moving forward next year. Dave White got Jerry Carino’s take on this team’s future here as well.
One major key to doing that is owning a winning record at the RAC in league play. Five of the ten opponents they play at home next season were teams they beat last season. Another key is having more success on the road than ever before. They did go 3-7 this past season away from home, so if they could even improve by a game next season, it would go a long way. If Rutgers could finish with a .500 record in Big Ten play, it would be another major step forward, most likely ensuring a overall winning record and postseason possibilities. That should be the expectation heading into the 2019-2020 season.
Dates for the conference schedule will be announced late summer. For a full list of conference matchups, click here.