March is less than two weeks away and for the first time in well over a decade the Rutgers men’s basketball team has something still to play for other than pride. After Saturday’s third double digit win of the season over a ranked opponent, a program first, the Scarlet Knights prepare for an even more important game this Wednesday against Michigan. While Rutgers looks to extend its perfect record at the RAC this season to 18-0, it faces an opponent that has historically been a thorn in the program’s side.
Even before the somewhat maddening 69-63 loss that Rutgers suffered to the Wolverines at Madison Square Garden on February 1, frustrating losses have hovered over this matchup for many years. Michigan comes to the RAC with a 12-0 all-time series record between the two schools.
Assuming no one reading this is still tortured by the initial meeting in which Michigan won 32-22 in 1933, the following defeat hurt every Rutgers fan to some degree, whether you were alive when it happened or not. It was the Wolverines who ended the dream run of the Rutgers team that went to the 1976 Final Four in Philadelphia with an undefeated record. Phil Sellers, Eddie Jordan and company came out tight and went into halftime with a 17 point deficit. They ultimately lost 86-70 in what was a disappointing performance on an otherwise perfect season.
After two blowout losses in the mid-80’s, the two programs didn’t meet again until April Fool’s Day in 2004. Also at Madison Square Garden, they played in the NIT Championship game. An exciting freshman named Quincy Douby torched Iowa State for 35 points in the semifinals and Scarlet Knight fans came to the Big Apple in droves. Once again, Michigan prevailed, winning 62-55 after the game with tied with five minutes to play.
The two schools didn’t meet again until Rutgers joined the Big Ten beginning in the 2014-2015 season. Michigan has won all seven meetings as conference foes by an average margin of victory of 9 points per contest with four of them by double digits.
With Rutgers playing on the big stage of the Garden floor for the Big Ten’s Super Saturday showcase earlier this month, they stumbled in what was an opportunity to finally take down the Wolverines. In a game that RU took 36 more shots, were +14 on the boards and held a 17-10 edge in points off of turnovers, they still lost by six points. Michigan also won without its best player, Isaiah Livers, who was out with an injury.
Rutgers has gone 2-2 since that loss and is still searching for a signature road win in Big Ten play this season. However, with a nation’s best 17-0 mark at the RAC, the program is on the cusp of its first NCAA Tournament bid in 29 years. However, for that to become a reality and for a chance to finish the season with a previously unthinkable perfect record at home this season, Rutgers has to beat Michigan on Wednesday.
It’s poetic that the Scarlet Knights look to exorcise their demons against Michigan at home, where it’s been a house of horrors for every visitor this season. Livers is back for the Wolverines, who despite their record of 16-9 overall and 7-7 in Big Ten play, are a top 5 team in the conference when he is on the court. UM is 12-4 with Livers, 4-5 without him and now have won five of its last six games. Beating a Big Ten blue blood for the first time is another necessary step for RU to gain more respect across the conference. Hopefully, the cycle of of failure over the years to Michigan will reset when they visit the Trapezoid of Terror.
Geo Baker is back to his old self and Ron Harper Jr. is coming off a monster performance, so it’s fair to be hopeful. Defending ball screens and contesting every three-point attempt Michigan takes will be arguably the biggest key to winning the game.
The Scarlet Knights are 18-8 overall with a 9-6 record in Big Ten play. They realistically need a winning record in conference play and a second road win or at least a victory in the Big Ten Tournament on a neutral court to make the NCAA Tournament. In a season that Rutgers has accomplished certain feats for the first time in many years and even some things for the first time ever, they need to finally beat Michigan if they hope to go dancing in March. It would be a valuable Quad 1 victory that would strengthen its postseason resume and finally beat a program it’s long struggled against.
With RU legend Quincy Douby attending Wednesday’s game, it’s the perfect time for Rutgers fans to declare that they “Doubylieve” this team can continue to rewrite history in what has been a special season so far.