The regular season concluded on Sunday and the final Big Ten standings confirmed what a balanced and unpredictable conference it was. Michigan State, Maryland and Wisconsin finished in a three-way tie for first place, while Rutgers finished in a four-way tie for fifth place. It’s an incredible achievement for a program that finished in last place the first four seasons it was in the Big Ten before tying with Illinois and Penn State for tenth place last season.
Just like last year, the Scarlet Knights have lost the tiebreakers among the group of teams they finished with the same regular season record as. The first tiebreaker for more than two teams tied in the standings is overall record against the group that has the same Big Ten record (round robin). Iowa earned the 5 seed going 3-1, Penn State the 6 seed going 3-3, Ohio State the 7 seed going 2-2 and Rutgers will be the 8 seed after a 1-3 head to head record.
Despite losing the tiebreaker to the other three teams tied for fifth place, Rutgers still finished well ahead of expectations. Picked 12th in the preseason poll, the Scarlet Knights were just one of eight teams in a 14 team conference, ranked the best by all metrics, to finished the regular season with a winning league record. With an 11-9 record in Big Ten play, Rutgers earned its most conference victories in 29 years and earned its first conference tournament opening round bye in 25 years.
Rutgers beat two of three Big Ten co-champs, going 2-3 overall against the Spartans, Terps and Badgers. They finished ahead in the standings of traditionally top half conference teams in Michigan, Purdue, and Indiana, the latter two they held a 3-0 record against. Of course, the Wolverines swept Rutgers without even playing them on its home floor this season. The two teams will tip-off the second round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday, March 12 at noon ET. Full bracket is here:
While I think Michigan is a bad matchup for Rutgers with its size, spacing, three-point shooting and elite point guard play, it’s also very hard to beat an opponent three times in one season. That’s what the Wolverines will try to do in Indianapolis after finishing the regular season losing three of its last four. If the Scarlet Knights can avenge the two losses from earlier this season and beat Michigan for the first time in school history, I do like the side of the bracket that they are on and think the potential to make a memorable run this week is certainly possible. They are coming off as memorable a week for the program in years so they appear to be peaking at the right time.
Before delving too much ahead regarding the third matchup against Michigan, which I’ll have a full game preview plus more later this week, here are some notable achievements aside from a historic tie for fifth place that Rutgers achieved this season.
- In Big Ten play, Rutgers finished second in the conference in defensive efficiency. In the previous five seasons in the league, the Scarlet Knights never finished better than ninth. They finished twelfth last season. Out of eight advanced statistical categories for defensive efficiency, Rutgers finished 4th or better in every one of them with the exception of free throw rate at 12th. Overall, out of 353 Division I teams, RU finished 6th in defensive efficiency. I saw this team practice in the preseason and that along with the first nine games of the season, I never believed they were capable of finishing second in the Big Ten and sixth in the country defensively. It’s a phenomenal feat that speaks volumes about the coaching job done by Steve Pikiell and his staff.
- In regard to offensive efficiency, Rutgers finished the regular season at 70th in the nation overall and 10th in Big Ten play. While the overall rating is not earth shattering for a high major team, if they can maintain in the 70’s through postseason play, it would be the program’s highest offensive efficiency rating since the 2005-2006 season. Under Steve Pikiell, RU finished 231st, 270th and 152nd the previous three seasons. Dramatic improvement is evident through those rankings and while they need to continue to progress offensively to take another step forward next season, returning seven of the eight players who play the most minutes is an encouraging sign. In Big Ten play, Rutgers finished 10th after finished last its first four seasons in the league followed by 12th last year. More steady than dramatic, but positive progress just the same.
- KenPom projected Rutgers to finish the regular season with a 17-14 overall record and 8-12 in Big Ten play. They exceeded both projections by 3 wins. They are currently have the 27th best efficiency rating in Division I so far this season, over 40 spots better than the program ever has in two decades of the ratings system existing.
- First winning season in 14 years.
- Rutgers produced its first 20 win regular season since the 1982-1983 team that also last won an NCAA Tournament game.
- RU finished with a nation’s best 18-1 home record.
- This team earned the program’s first national ranking in 41 seasons back in January, remaining ranked for two weeks.
- Produced four ranked wins this season, the most in 18 years and first ever time beating four ranked opponents all by double digits.
- Only Division I team to play the last seven games of the regular season as quad 1 opportunities. They went 3-4.
- Tied co-Big Ten champion Michigan State with fewest double digit conference losses at just one, which occurred against the Spartans in early December.
- Swept the season series’ with both Purdue and Nebraska after never achieving it once against any Big Ten opponent the previous five seasons.
- Currently have a NET ranking of 32 and combined 9-10 record against Quad 1 & 2 opportunities.
I’ll have a complete bracketology breakdown on Monday heading into Championship Week and Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament less taking place on March 15. For now, here are the statistical probabilities for all 14 Big Ten teams entering this week’s conference tournament.