There are big moments in every team’s season and how they handle those moments helps define how they will be remembered. Regardless of how the postseason plays out for the Rutgers men’s basketball team, Tuesday night’s RAC regular season finale will live on in the trapezoid of terror’s lore forever. The Scarlet Knights didn’t just beat no. 9 Maryland, they dominated them and built the largest lead (20 points) the Terps have allowed all season. It was a fitting exclamation point on the greatest home season in the RAC’s 43 year history.
18-1. Most home wins in program history. Best home record in Division I.
How this team has captured the hearts of a fan base starving for success is the real story of this season though and the RAC was the perfect vehicle to bring them together.
Ahead of Steve Pikiell’s fourth season, the expectation was delivering the program’s first winning season in 14 years. Any of Rutgers fan for any substantial amount of time knew that meant protecting it’s homecourt. Last season, the RAC was sold out five times. Rutgers lost each of those five games. That couldn’t happen this season if progress was to occur.
This season, Rutgers went 9-1 in sellouts at the RAC. They beat four ranked opponents, all by double digits. This includes two teams currently ranked in the top ten and all four remain ranked entering the final week of the regular season.
The RAC reclaimed its status as a house of horrors across the national landscape within college basketball. In fact, it’s been elevated to cult status. Every Rutgers fan who attended even just one game deserves credit for that. The Riot Squad, the official student section of Rutgers athletics, has elevated the atmosphere consistently all season.
Our own Dave White, who has been a season ticket holder since the 2002-2003 season and has attended games at the RAC for over two decades, reflected on the experience this season. He stated, “The energy at the RAC is different. The fans know they are helping will the team to win and manage to dig even deeper to bring the noise. It’s amazing watching the team feed off the cheers and every little success. The building is alive this year.”
It’s been an amazing transformation from just four years ago, both the atmosphere at the RAC and the state of the team. This is what I tweeted last night after beating no. 9 Maryland:
Take a moment to appreciate the fact that Rutgers went 16-76 in its first 5 regular seasons in the Big Ten. They sit 10-9 with a game left this season, which is one more victory than they won its first four years combined. Steve Pikiell hasn’t pounded nails, he’s worked miracles.— Aaron Breitman (@aaron_breitman) March 4, 2020
Steve Pikiell has completely transformed the Rutgers men’s basketball game and one of his defining characteristics as coach has been his love for the RAC. He has said many times his mentor, Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun, has said it was the hardest place to play on the road in his coaching career. Pikiell knew the potential that existed with the RAC if he could build a team able to capitalize on having it as its homecourt. In just four years, he has produced a team that has used the RAC to its advantage like no other Rutgers team ever had before. It also led to the program’s most conference victories (10) since the 1990-1991 season. That’s the last time the Scarlet Knights went dancing in March, which leads to my next point.
And now all Rutgers fans should hope the lights stay off until next November. Tuesday night’s win provided a huge boost to the team’s NCAA Tournament resume. As of Wednesday, Rutgers has a KenPom ranking of 27 and a NET ranking of 32. That is right in line with what has traditionally been good enough to earn a at-large berth. The Scarlet Knights are 8-10 in quad 1 & 2 games, which is solid. They’ve beaten five teams that are locks for the NCAA Tournament in Wisconsin, Illinois, Penn State, Seton Hall and now Maryland, all of whom are nationally ranked this week.
Another interesting tidbit and feather in its cap for Rutgers is that according to KenPom, its homecourt advantage from an analytical perspective is only ranked 51st best in Division I this season at 3.7 points. So producing the best home record in college basketball is a positive reflection of how good a team Rutgers really is.
Of course, the pink elephant in the room is the 1-10 record in road or neutral games. No team in the modern era of the NCAA Tournament has ever made it with just 1 win away from its home floor. However, a few things to consider. The first is obvious, as Rutgers still has at least two opportunities to improve on that win total away from the RAC. They visit Purdue on Saturday and will play in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday, March 12th with seeding and matchup still to be determined.
And if they don’t win at least one more game, all Rutgers fans will be sweating out Selection Sunday. However, consider two things: 1) The eight games RU lost in Big Ten play away from the RAC came against the eight teams currently ranked in this week’s AP Poll. They lost those eight games by an average of 5.75 points and only one was a double digit defeat. Yes, playing close on the road is positively reflected in KenPom and NET rankings. 2) Has any team previously that failed to make the NCAA Tournament with just one road/neutral win played as difficult a road schedule while also being as dominant at home? That I truly don’t know and would require hours of research, but I’m confident in saying if there are, its not many and would be debatable if those applicable resumes would be better than Rutgers. Believe me, I don’t want to have to find out either.
Lastly, KenPom also determines a luck rating for every team and this may be the most surprising stat for Rutgers all season. As of Wednesday, they are ranked 304 out of 353 Division I teams. The Scarlet Knights have proven all season they never quit, they play together and although not a perfect team, they are a legitimately good one. Luck has nothing to do with it.
As of Wednesday, national writers such as Zach Braziller and Jeff Goodman tweeted that Rutgers are locks for the NCAA Tournament. Bracketologists such as Joe Lunardi has them as one of the first four bye’s and Brad Wachtel thinks the way they beat Maryland “will resonate with the committee”. Don’t forget Rutgers essentially led wire to wire over both the Terps and Seton Hall, beating them by a combined 31 points. Both are top 4 seed locks for the NCAA Tournament. As more updated NCAA projections are released on Wednesday, I’ll update them here.
So as fun as it has been watching this Rutgers team run opponents off the court at the RAC this season, let’s hope we all have to wait months to see it again. While an NIT appearance would mark significant progress for the program, its first in 14 years, as well as another home game, it would be somewhat deflating as well. Rutgers is right there, one foot through the door into the promised land that is the NCAA Tournament. To quote my daughter’s favorite phrase, I think they need “one more” win to be a lock.
If it happens, that means every remaining game this season would be many miles from Piscataway. With all due respect, I hope the program’s equipment managers get lots of work and pack plenty of luggage this month. The RAC has helped put Rutgers in a position to do that. Now they have to get the other foot through the door by winning one away from its beloved home to guarantee it.