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Is This Steve Pikiell’s Strategy for Scheduling Rutgers Basketball’s Out of Conference Games?

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NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

One of the few criticisms that’s been leveled against Steve Pikiell during his time at Rutgers has been his scheduling for out of conference games. Some have said that on first appearance, the out of conference schedules look weak and and short of marquee opponents.

But, Pikiell has often defended his scheduling saying it often ends up being a top 25 schedule and that the league often dictates how he schedules. Recently, the great Jerry Carino wrote an article reporting Rutgers out of conference schedule (which hasn’t been announced by the school or basketball program yet), and it was met with some derision on social media and on the message boards.

It’s not the flashiest schedule, and beyond Seton Hall, there aren’t really any marquee home games. And as people like Carino said it’s not how you schedule if your goal is to make the NCAA. It’s an NIT schedule. However, I think there’s a method to Pikiell’s scheduling madness that could lead to the NCAAs. A key quote came during his interview last week on Jon Rothstein’s podcast.

Pikiell talked repeatedly about figuring out his team early in the season. And, I think that’s how he views the out of conference portion. He wants to experiment and establish roles for his players during game action. He wants them to get used to being on the court with each other. And he doesn’t want to do that at the expense of winning. He doesn’t want to spend two months figuring out his team only to finish 5-6 against a brutal schedule. He’d rather sit at 9-2 and take his shot at the Big Ten.

Then, I think he wants to be as competitive as possible in conference play. Think about it, if he finishes the conference portion of the schedule at 9-11 or 10-10, they’re almost certainly in the NIT and are probably mentioned as a bubble team, depending on the strength of the conference. Of course, with an 18-13 or 19-12 record, they’re on the wrong side of the bubble.

Yet, we are all forgetting about an important part of college basketball: the Big Ten Tournament.

Before last season, Steve Pikiell hadn’t lost an opening round tournament game in 9 seasons. If the Scarlet Knights were to finish 10-10 in conference they would likely be a middle of the pack conference tournament team. Which means their first two opponents would be strong ones. If, on a neutral court, Pikiell could pull off two conference wins, they’d sit at 21-13 and squarely on the bubble.

It’s a risky strategy for sure, and one that works in a mid-major setting, where winning the conference tournament is all that matters. But, if the dominos were to fall the right way, with a soft bubble, it could be enough to get Rutgers into the NCAA Tournament, which is Pikiell’s stated goal.

But, none of this matters if Rutgers doesn’t win. They need to embrace expectations and take care of business on the court. That means no major slip-ups. Lose to Seton Hall at home or Pitt on the the road is one thing, but they can’t struggle elsewhere in the out of conference schedule. And, they have to get off to a good start in conference play and build confidence.

They got a break by going to MSG to play Michigan instead of going to the Crisler Center. That could be the type of game that’s a resume builder.

Who knows what the season holds this year?

One thing is clear, though, this is a schedule built to stack wins and finally break Rutgers streak of finishing under .500. They should make a postseaons tournament. But they’ll have to play really well in conference and in the conference tournament to make their ultimate goal.

Pikiell is scheduling to win, and if they do, it will be extremely refreshing for Rutgers fans.