As Rutgers enters the first full week of the new year, one thing is clear. The time to make a run has come. Let’s state some clear facts at the moment first.
The Big Ten is the best conference in college basketball and it’s not particularly close from top to bottom with the next best conference in the Big XII.
Rutgers is one of the better teams in the Big Ten.
While the Scarlet Knights fell just one spot to no. 15 in this week’s AP Poll after Saturday’s loss to Iowa, that ranking doesn’t really matter. What’s most important is that RU is no. 17 in the initial NET rankings of the season, which is the primary source that the Selection Committee uses for seeding purposes for the NCAA Tournament. That puts Rutgers in very good standing in early January, although there is a long way to go.
We know Rutgers is good and are currently on a track towards the postseason, but how good can they become and how high can they finish in the Big Ten standings come March, which will help determine their potential seed for the NCAA Tournament, is the real question?
Getting healthy is key to that answer and the good news is Ron Harper Jr. and Jacob Young appear to be close to doing so. When Cliff Omoruyi returns is a key question, but if Rutgers can maintain its core and work Caleb McConnell back into shape, the depth is much better than it was a week ago.
Every team hits a rough patch, but those that win conference titles typically minimize them. Rutgers has lost two of three games and while there is no reason for panic, if this team wants to become the first program on the banks to win a Big Ten title, they need to get going. While it’s not necessary of course, this team has shown the potential early on to do just that. The team has set high expectations for themselves so it’s fair to think along the same lines.
The next three games, while certainly challenging, presents a legitimate chance to achieve a winning streak, something thats’s hard to do in the Big Ten. Current KenPom rankings for each of the next three opponents are listed below with Rutgers currently at no. 19.
At Michigan State (no. 50)
Ohio State (no. 20)
At Penn State (no. 48)
All three teams are in the top 25 in offensive efficiency but fall out of the top 50 in defensive efficiency. Rutgers is far more balanced with an offensive efficiency of 17 and defensive efficiency of 28. That gives them an advantage against all three foes IF they can perform the way they are capable of.
The first game of this set is the hardest for several reasons. It’s comes just three days after an emotional loss on the road against a team they’ve never beaten. There is no doubt that Michigan State is not as strong a team as they’ve been annually, but they’re still full of talent. There is also the mental hurdle for Rutgers to overcome in winning at a place they never have before. A good start and controlling the pace within be key.
The much anticipated rematch against Ohio State takes place at the RAC on Saturday. The officiating in the first meeting was rightfully criticized, but Rutgers let a game slip away because it stopped attacking. The opportunity to redeem themselves is plenty of motivation and hopefully the emergence of Dean Reiber can help with frontcourt depth in this matchup.
Playing Penn State is always a battle and Rutgers will get its only shot at the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley next Tuesday. That will be the fourth game in 11 days, so it will be challenging in multiple ways. PSU is 22nd in offensive efficiency, so they are surely capable of taking down RU if they don’t bring its defense on the road. Avoiding a letdown against a bottom tier conference opponent is important as well.
The reality is Rutgers has a legitimate chance to win all three games and KenPom is projecting that to happen. It’s a lot to ask for, but if it can then RU would be 6-2 in the Big Ten heading into a showdown with Wisconsin at the RAC on January 15. They’ll have a much needed nine day break after that matchup.
The team has to take it one game at a time and Pikiell is good at keeping his players focused. As fans, as fun as this season has been and as good as this team has looked at times, it’s hard not to look ahead and get excited. Even a 2-1 run over the next three keeps Rutgers in a good position. Of course, nothing is guaranteed. The difference in being well positioned for the top four of the conference come mid-February and fighting to finish .500 in Big Ten play is thin. Taking advantage of the opportunity ahead in the next three games could make that difference. Even thinking it’s possible, especially with two road games, shows how far this program has come.
More on the matchup with Michigan State will come with my game preview on Tuesday morning.