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Rutgers basketball redefining its ceiling with every victory

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The Scarlet Knights continue its quest to go dancing in March, as that reality is inching closer and closer.

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 28 Purdue at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Rutgers men’s basketball team continued on a clear path to ending the longest NCAA Tournament drought of any power conference team in college basketball with a win over Purdue on Tuesday night. At 16-5 overall and a half game out of first place in the Big Ten standings with a conference record of 7-3, Rutgers is solidly in the field of 68 as of today, January 29th. Let that soak in for a moment. Of course, there is plenty of more work to be done before that becomes a reality. Even so, perspective on how far this program has come is needed.

The 16 wins this team has so far is the most since the last winning season and postseason appearance Rutgers made during the 2005-2006 season. They are one win away from clinching the first winning campaign in 14 years. They have also now tied the most regular season wins since joining the Big Ten, something they did last season, despite only being halfway through the conference schedule. However, there are much bigger stakes at play now.

As of Wednesday morning, Rutgers has a NET ranking of 21 and a KenPom ranking of 26. While it’s great that the Scarlet Knights are nationally ranked for a second straight week after a 41 year absence in the polls, the advanced metric rankings are what really matter to the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

While Rutgers is a nation’s best 15-0 at home, they have just one road win this season. It’s really the only concern regarding their NCAA Tournament resume, but there are plenty of opportunities ahead. Road games remaining include at Maryland, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State, and Purdue, all of which would count as Quad I wins per the NET rankings. Next up is a “road” game this Saturday vs. Michigan at Madison Square Garden. It will count as a neutral site game, which a victory would still be a major positive towards Rutgers NET ranking.

The reality is even if RU goes winless on the road, the key is getting to 20 regular season wins. There are exactly four remaining home games against Northwestern, Michigan, Illinois, and Maryland. Beating Northwestern is a must and the only opportunity for Rutgers to have a bad loss the rest of the way. Every other opponent is ranked in the top 32 teams currently per KenPom. Per ESPN’s BPI ratings, Rutgers has the third most difficult schedule remaining in college basketball. Even against the last place Wildcats, there are no easy games in the Big Ten. With six victories over KenPom Top 40 teams this season, after just five in the previous seven years, Rutgers has plenty more opportunities for more the rest of the way.

The point though is that Rutgers has earned the praise its received so far and put themselves in as good a position for NCAA Tournament consideration as could have been hope for heading into this season. The fact that they are actually in the position they are feels like a dream to most of us. If they do continue on a path to March Madness, they will also be extremely battle tested once they arrive there.

Current NCAA projections are as follows: SB Nation forecasts the Scarlet Knights as a 5th seed, Joe Lunardi of ESPN lists Rutgers as a seventh seed, Jerry Palm of CBS slates them as a sixth seed, as does Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News. Bracketologist Brad Wachtel has Rutgers in line for a sixth seed as well. Note that all of these projections came BEFORE Tuesday night’s win over Purdue.

While defense and rebounding has been the foundation for the turnaround, there are signs the offense is improving. In the past four games, Rutgers is shooting 36.1% from three-point range and averaging 6.5 baskets from behind the arc per game. If they can perform anywhere close to this moving forward, they’ll be that much harder to beat.

They’ve also shot over 50% from two-point range in four of the past five games. RU is currently 9th in Big Ten play in offensive efficiency, but just half a point behind 6th place. This is encouraging and despite a loss at Iowa last week, Rutgers was so close to beating the best offensive team on the road.

What has been a struggle lately is rebounding. After holding an advantage on the boards in 14 of the first 15 games of the season, Rutgers now lost that battle in four of the past six games and have a rebounding margin of -8 over that span. The remarkable thing is that despite this issue, Rutgers went 4-2 in that stretch and its only losses were by a combined 8 points on the road to two ranked foes, Iowa and Illinois. This is another sign of progress for the program.

While rebounding and defense will always be the core strength of this team under head coach Steve Pikiell, they are finding ways to win even if they struggle in those areas. Aside from rebounding, Rutgers didn’t have great performances from a defensive efficiency perspective in wins over Minnesota and Nebraska, but still won both. Defense remains strong and despite that two game blip last week, they delivered a defensive performance that we’ve come to expect last night against Purdue. Rutgers is currently third in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency.

The versatility and depth of this team has become its greatest strength. Team chemistry and the skill sets of the key nine players in the rotation has fostered a situation where different guys are stepping up every game. Seven players have led the team in scoring this season.

If I had told you that in the month of January that captain Geo Baker, who was the leading scorer on the team entering conference play resuming, would play just five of the last eight games and average only 6.4 points on just 28% shooting, as well as just 2.4 assists and 1.8 rebounds, what record would you have guessed? I sincerely doubt anyone, myself included, could have predicted Rutgers would have gone 6-2 in Big Ten play during this period that he suffered a thumb injury and now working his way back into form. However, that’s exactly what happened. That isn’t meant to slight Geo as his importance to this team remains massive, but rather highlight the growth this team has made.

Rutgers basketball is in unchartered territory. February is approaching and this team is in contention not just for an NCAA Tournament bid, but a Big Ten title. Yes the latter is unlikely, but the fact that it’s even a possibility is truly remarkable. What Steve Pikiell has done in building Rutgers basketball into a top half Big Ten team so far this season is extraordinary. The toughness of this team and the way they play for each other is in my opinion the biggest reason for optimism as the stretch run of the regular season approaches. Despite a difficult schedule remaining, there is no fold in the DNA of this team. That’s why when they are struggling to score or giving up a run by its opponent for a time, this team never seems to be out of the game. It’s a strange thing to have such confidence watching a Rutgers basketball team night after night, but that’s the reality fans find themselves in right now.

The expectations for this season in October were to deliver the first winning campaign in 14 years and hopefully make the NIT as well. This team has played so well that much bigger goals are in plain sight. Making the NCAA Tournament would be a stunning achievement for a program that’s last been there 29 years ago and just four years prior were the unquestioned worst high major program in college basketball. However, if Rutgers continues to play the way they have, there should be hope that in addition to getting there, they can actually have success in March as well. Purdue head coach Matt Painter said it best after the game on Tuesday, stating “They’ve got a chance not to just get to the tournament, but a chance to win games in the tournament. I think they’re going to be a real tough out in the NCAA Tournament.”

Welcome to the new reality of Rutgers basketball.