For the first time arguably since I was a student at Rutgers, and I turn 37 years old later this year, it’s fun to be a Rutgers men’s basketball fan right now. With Rutgers on a five game winning streak, capped off by a dominating 17-point road conference win at Nebraska Friday evening, pretty much every popular prognosticator lists Rutgers as a potential NCAA tournament team as of this writing. To summarize many of the major sources (ratings as of Sunday morning, January 5, 2020):
- RPI: 19*
- Bart Torvik: 24
- NCAA’s Net Rating: 29*
- KenPom: 42
- Sagarin: 43
(*NOTE: Asterisked ratings haven’t been updated since before the Nebraska game, and may improve even further after the next refresh.)
In my last article going deep into Rutgers’ KenPom ratings, I mentioned the “magic” KenPom number of 45 as a reasonable barrier for Rutgers to be an NCAA team this season. To be completely honest, I did not expect Rutgers to exceed the 45 threshold on January 3 of this year! While lots of season remains to be played, Rutgers’ latest performances have been truly astonishing, in a good way, to watch.
Turns out it’s fun, in good times like these, to try to predict the future. And with advanced analytical tools, it’s possible – not even that difficult – to do so with some accuracy, as long as the analyst is reasonable about the rules they’re using to predict. What I plan to do here is project out a best-case, worst-case, and average-case scenario for Rutgers from now until, oh, let’s say Sunday, March 15. (That’s Selection Sunday.)
- Best-case assumes Rutgers wins every game they’re currently favored to win, as well as 80 percent of the games where they are between a 31 and a 49 percent favorite to win – the latter set of games are games where you’d expect Rutgers to be between a 1 and 5 point Vegas underdog.
- Worst-case assumes Rutgers only wins the games where they’re currently at least 60 percent to win the game, and zero of the “toss-ups”. Turns out there are several games left on the docket where Rutgers is between 31 and 60 percent likely to win; the worst-case projection assumes Rutgers wins literally none of them.
- Average-case assumes Rutgers wins only the games they’re currently projected to win, and none of the games where they are not. Easy peasy.
- All of the above analyses are derived from KenPom’s game-by-game projections (which is behind a paywall).
So without any further delay, let’s get to it, and also wish Montez Mathis a belated happy 21st birthday with the below GIF of him slamming it home last Friday night (video courtesy of BTN):
Oh man, this will be fun.
In this projection, Geo Baker comes back soon (relatively speaking, thumb breaks are no joke) and is healthy and productive the remainder of the season. Rutgers also avoids any other substantive injuries the rest of the year. Rutgers thrives in Geo’s absence, winning their next four games (vs. PSU, at Illinois, vs. Indiana, vs. Minnesota) and by late January is ranked somewhere within the top 20 in the country.
The schedule tightens up the rest of the season, but Rutgers avoids a single losing streak of greater than two games throughout conference play. While Rutgers loses to Michigan at MSG on February 1 in a squeaker, they avenge the loss with a confident home-court victory later in the month, and cap off the season with a really fun Senior Day victory against a top-ten team in Maryland.
Rutgers cycles between being ranked in the top 25 and simply receiving votes in the poll all season, but closes the year 12-8 in conference play and 21-10 overall in the regular season. Rutgers is the #6 seed in the conference tournament, and wins their first game handily before losing the quarterfinals; a bit of a bummer, but no big deal come Selection Sunday, which is equal parts elation and snooze-fest for fans as Rutgers earns an at-large bid (maybe a #7 or #8 seed).
This scenario is a major buzzkill, so I won’t spend as much time on it as it is less fun to write. In this scenario, Baker’s injury is worse than expected, and the injury bug hits a few more Rutgers players, testing the team’s depth and limiting Coach Pikiell’s ability to substitute and manage foul difficulty. As a result, Rutgers on offense begins to look more like Rutgers looked on offense from 2016-19, and the team’s offensive efficiency tanks. A lack of depth leads to a corresponding decrease in focus on defense, and the team struggles throughout the year. In this scenario, today is truly the high point of the season.
As readers know, the Big Ten on the road can be truly difficult, and in this scenario – which again, I made as conservative as I could – Rutgers does not win another road game. Further, they only win four more home games (vs. Indiana, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Illinois), leading to a final conference record of 6-14 and an all-too-familiar-looking season record of 15-16 for Rutgers fans. Rutgers is forced to play on the first day of the conference tournament and loses, ending a season which started with promise and ended in disappointment. A truly depressing scenario for Rutgers fans.
If Rutgers simply holds serve and wins the games they should be favored/projected to win the rest of the season – that is, if they simply meet the reasonable expectations of this moment – they finish 9-11 in conference play and 18-13 overall for the season. While not as exuberant as the best-case scenario above, believe me, this would still be a fun ride. In this scenario, Rutgers knocks off two likely ranked teams at home (Penn State and Michigan), and plays Purdue and Maryland close at home and Michigan close at MSG. (Let’s just say Rutgers wrestling clobbers Michigan at MSG to make this all seem more palatable.)
A 9-11 conference record makes Rutgers about the #9 seed in the conference tournament. I don’t need to explain basic math, but one win in the conference tournament gives Rutgers 19, and two wins gives Rutgers 20. Twenty feels like a nice round number, but who knows. I’m not going to predict the conference tournament or Selection Sunday in this scenario because anything could happen – but this is part of the fun of being fans! No matter what, Rutgers fans will appreciate a meaningful March for Rutgers men’s basketball.
What do you think will happen the rest of the way? Share your comments below, and here is a game-by-game summary of all three scenarios: