It’s been a few days since Rutgers lost its fourth straight game and fifth over six contests, putting a once promising season in question. This loss was different in that unlike blowout defeats to Michigan State and Ohio State the previous week, the Scarlet Knights were true to themselves despite falling short to the Badgers.
Wisconsin won a rock fight at the RAC last Friday night, but Rutgers held an elite offense to just 60 points and 35% shooting, in addition to holding a +15 rebounding margin. Yes, offensive production and shooting has been miserable of late, including in this loss, but for Rutgers to have a chance to turn things around, defense and rebounding is the core way for them to do so. It’s been the program identity ever since Steve Pikiell arrived. That’s why the performance was reason enough not to panic in spite of the result.
Look no further than the opponent as a reason for hope that this season can still be a special one.
Last season, Wisconsin returned a veteran team that has won 23 games the year before that finished in fourth place in the Big Ten and earned a 5 seed in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. High expectations were placed on the Badgers, as they are every year, but they failed to live up to them for two-thirds of the 2019-20 season.
They began the season 4-1 that included a victory over Marquette (no. 31 KenPom), but then suffered a three game losing streak in non-conference play to Richmond (KenPom no. 46), New Mexico State (KenPom no. 138) and N.C. State (KenPom no. 50), all by nine points or more. After an impressive 20 point win over Indiana (KenPom no. 34) to begin Big Ten play, they lost to Rutgers a few days later. The Badgers were just 5-5 overall.
Fast forward almost two months later and their season was continuing in disappointing fashion. After an 18 point loss to Minnesota (12-10; 6-6; KenPom no. 27) on February 5, Wisconsin fell to 6-6 in Big Ten play and just 13-10 overall. Six of those losses were by 9 points or more. Even after an impressive one point win over Michigan State the game before, the Badgers stumbled badly against the Gophers and held to just 52 points. It was their worst performance in Big Ten play to date. While they were on the NCAA Tournament bubble, it appeared to most that their season was slipping away.
Just three games before, starter Kobe King quit the team. He led the Badgers in scoring in Big Ten play, but was unhappy with the culture of the program. He cited issues with how the team was spoken to that eventually led to a strength coach being put on administrative leave after King’s departure.
Despite all of the adversity that Wisconsin was going through, they overcame it and proceeded to rattle off eight consecutive victories to close out the regular season. In stunning fashion, the Badgers gained a share of the conference title along with Maryland and Michigan State, ultimately earning the no. 1 seed in the soon to be cancelled Big Ten Tournament due to COVID-19.
So what changed?
I asked that question to Drew Hamm, the managing editor of SB Nation’s Wisconsin site Bucky’s 5th Quarter. He cited several reasons:
• The Badgers were a deep and veteran team last year, and that certainly helped them weather the storm.
• Micah Potter was eligible for only the second half of the season and it took the team a bit to feel comfortable with him, and vice versa.
• Kobe King leaving the team did seem to galvanize the remaining players, for what that’s worth, and kind of turn the remainder of the season into a big Us vs. Them situation.
• Greg Gard is a pretty even-keeled coach which also helped.
• The schedule was also favorable to UW over the final eight games (5 home, 3 road, plus Nebraska and Northwestern were on the schedule).
The real question is what similar circumstances that led to Wisconsin’s turnaround that Drew pointed out exist for Rutgers to potentially do the same?
The biggest similarity is that Rutgers has a veteran team that has experienced many highs and lows, like that Badgers team had as well.
It took Wisconsin farther into the season to build continuity with its rotation than potentially Rutgers can, as they finally have its top eight players available for the first time in its last game. Having Cliff Omoruyi back and Caleb McConnell shaking off the rust gives hope this group can now reach its full potential together. Add in injuries to multiple key players earlier this season and this team finally seems close to building a rhythm with its core players.
Like Greg Gard, Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell is an even keeled leader with a grind it out mentality that typically gets the most out of his players by season’s end. Gard went from the hot seat to Big Ten coach of the year in five weeks. For those upset with how Pikiell has performed this season, including the embarrassing reactions on message boards this past weekend, there should be no doubt he can lead this team back with how he has turned the worst high major program in the sport that he inherited into the respected one with March Madness aspirations that it has today. While there are plenty of similarities between Gard’s team last season and Pikiell’s this season, the biggest difference would be culture issues. Pikiell has embraced his players focus on social issues and encouraged them to be vocal. The buy-in from this group of players under Pikiell has been resolute.
As for the schedule, there are no easy games in the Big Ten, the toughest conference in college basketball. However, Rutgers just played six of its first eight league games against teams currently in the top six of the standings. Don’t forget that RU beat Illinois (KenPom no. 11), lost by one possession to Iowa (KenPom no. 3) just two plus weeks ago and fell just short to Wisconsin (KenPom no. 10). Four of the five losses Rutgers has had has come against teams ranked inside the top 16 of KenPom. While a rematch with Iowa remains later in the season, Rutgers has a chance to reverse recent course immediately.
The next four games are at Penn State, at Indiana, a rematch at home to Michigan State and at Northwestern, whom they play twice this season. The average KenPom ranking of those four opponents is 47. Being on the road is never easy, but Rutgers was impressive in a win at Maryland and perhaps getting away with provide an elixir to their recent struggles. The chance to build a winning streak is there and would help set them up to make a run down the stretch of the season.
Home games with Maryland and Indiana, as well as a road game at Nebraska are good chances for victories as well. A two game series vs. Minnesota could define their ultimate spot in the Big Ten standings. Although seven of the remaining twelve are on the road, no fans make that fact less daunting.
Another key trait of last year’s Wisconsin team is they had a offensive efficiency ranked 40th nationally but had a defensive efficiency ranked 17th nationally. Rutgers finished 6th last season and were ranked in the teens all this season before the past three games that sunk them to 34th nationally. The point is if Rutgers is going to turn things around, the path runs through its defense.
In comparing what happened with Wisconsin last season to where the Scarlet Knights are right now, I’m not saying they will produce the same type winning streak that results in a Big Ten title. The main point is that it is mid-January, there is a long way to go and Rutgers is still capable of putting together a very good season. While winning a conference title seemed possible after the 6-0 start, this team can still meet preseason expectations by finishing in the top half of the Big Ten standings. The ultimate goal of the NCAA Tournament is still firmly on the table. The conference schedule provides plenty of opportunities to build a worthy resume.
The chance to turn things around begins on Thursday night against Penn State. They’ve won two of the last four at Happy Valley, but lost a 1 point heartbreaker last season. Rutgers responded with season defining victories over a top ten Maryland team and at Purdue to secure a 20 win season, unofficially putting them into the NCAA Tournament that never happened. If this Rutgers team wants to break the program’s 30 year drought of making it to March Madness, a similar response over a longer timeframe is now a must. It won’t be easy but is certainly attainable. If they need a reminder that anything is still possible, just look at what Wisconsin accomplished last season.