On Wednesday night, one week before the official start date of the college basketball season, the Big Ten released it’s 20 game conference schedule. It’s another indication of how different this season will be due to the global pandemic COVID-19.
The league slate begins on December 13 and Rutgers has four games before New Year’s Day. The regular season is set to end the first weekend of March as usual, with the the Big Ten Tournament scheduled for March 10-14 in Chicago. From a Rutgers perspective, here are five takeaways on their Big Ten schedule.
Based on the unofficial media poll released this week that saw Rutgers picked fifth, they received a fair and balanced schedule. Of the seven teams they have home and home matchups with, two are picked in the top four (Iowa and Michigan State), two are picked in the bottom four (Minnesota and Northwestern), and the other three are picked in the middle between 7th to 10th (Ohio State, Indiana, and Maryland). In addition, despite fans not being in attendance this season, Rutgers is fortunate to play Wisconsin and Illinois, last season’s Big Ten champ and this season’s favorite, at home in their only meetings. Of course, protecting the RAC as well as they did last season is a major priority and RU will need to do it without 8,000 fans making it a house of horrors. On the flip side, playing on the road without fans can only help their ability to improve on their record away from the RAC this season.
It’s funny to look at the schedule and realize Rutgers will likely be favored in more Big Ten games than not this season. We’ve come quite a ways in a short time after finishing in last place the first four seasons since joining the Big Ten, followed by a three way tie for 10th place finish (seeded 12th) and a four way tie for fifth place (seeded 8th). The reality is the conference schedule will never be easy and no game should be considered an automatic win. An overwhelmingly important storyline this season is how Rutgers handles great expectations and adjusts to the role of being hunted rather than being the hunter.
Early Ceiling Test
We will find out how good Rutgers really is fairly early on in conference play. The first half of the Big Ten schedule on paper much more difficult. They’ll host Illinois in the second game of the season after opening up at Maryland. A trip to Ohio State and home game against Purdue is followed by the first two games after the New Year against Iowa at home and then a trip to Michigan State three days later. The Buckeyes come to the RAC three days later. If Rutgers wants to finish near the top of the Big Ten this season as projected, they need to hit the ground running in conference play. A 3-4 start wouldn’t mean panic time by any means based on the schedule and a better start than that would give Rutgers a legitimate chance to finish in the top four because.....
Set up for strong finish
The latter part of the schedule is on paper gives Rutgers a chance to roar like a lion into March. After a second meeting with Tom Izzo and the Spartans in late January, of the last nine conference games, only one contest is scheduled against a team picked ahead of Rutgers in the preseason poll. They play at Iowa in mid-February, but also have two games each with Northwestern, picked 14th, and Minnesota, who were picked to finish 11th. They also have their only meeting against Nebraska, who were picked 13th, in the regular season penultimate game.
Non-conference schedule will be a roller coaster
The only actual non-conference game that’s been officially announced is the December 8th matchup at home against Syracuse as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Rutgers is scheduled to open the season next Wednesday, November 25 at home against Sacred Heart, with a potential game with Fairleigh Dickinson later that week after Thanksgiving. A game with Rider was originally expected on opening week as well, but due to COVID-19 related issues it appears that game is unlikely to happen. We also don’t know if the annual rivalry game against Seton Hall will take place, as the only chance at this point is if bye weeks within league play during January and February match up. The Big East has yet to release a schedule past the end of December.
Rutgers can play up to seven non-conference games this season, but that seems unlikely at this point. Head coach Steve Pikiell said last week at media day that “We’re going to be calling schools in January, saying, ‘You have a free game. We have a free game. Want to play?’”
In addition, I’d personally be shocked if the entire 20 game Big Ten slate is actually played as scheduled. The minimum amount of games needed to be played to qualify for the NCAA Tournament was reduced to 13 games this season for a reason. Approximately two dozen programs are currently shut down due to COVID-19 issues. With the current state of the country and games beginning soon, that number could grow even higher. It’s going to be a season like no other and every time Rutgers takes the court it should be appreciated. The goal is to get to the NCAA Tournament and then go as far as possible. This team has been clear their goal is to be playing in the last game of the season for the entire sport. Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride this season.
Here is the full 20 game Big Ten schedule for Rutgers:
Dec 14 at Maryland
Dec 20 Illinois
Dec 23 at Ohio State
Dec 29 Purdue
Jan 2 Iowa
Jan 5 at Michigan State
Jan 9 Ohio State
Jan 12 at Penn State
Jan 15 Wisconsin
Jan 24 at Indiana
Jan 28 Michigan State
Jan 31 at Northwestern
Feb 4 Minnesota
Feb. 10 at Iowa
Feb. 13 Northwestern
Feb. 18 at Michigan
Feb. 21 Maryland
Feb 24 Indiana
Feb 28 at Nebraska
March 6/7 at Minnesota