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The stretch run for Rutgers points to one destination

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A look at where this team stands historically and why all signs point to a dance party in March.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Rutgers Catalina Fragoso-USA TODAY Sports

The second half of February is upon us and the forecast for Rutgers men’s basketball is clear skies with mild weather ahead. Two more wins. That’s what is needed over the last five games of the regular season to unofficially clinch the program’s first NCAA Tournament berth in 30 years.

Yes, Rutgers fell out of the AP Top 25 Poll on Monday, but guess what? It means nothing in regard to postseason prospects.

The AP Poll is all about perception, which is certainly relevant in recruiting and the national view, but lacks substance in regard to postseason resume.

The NET rankings tell us whether teams are in good position to make the NCAA Tournament. KenPom gives us a true measure of how good a basketball team really is.

With a 12-7 record overall and a 8-7 mark in Big Ten play, the Scarlet Knights are firmly in the NCAA Tournament field as of today. RU has a NET ranking of 30 and are 26 in KenPom. That’s 7 seed territory, not bubble territory. There is more work to be done, but the road ahead is a relatively smooth one, not an uphill climb. The fact that Rutgers is in this position after a five game losing streak is somewhat surprising.

While Rutgers has won some recent games in ugly fashion, so to speak, they’ve done so with their identity intact. Defense and rebounds. Even so, keep in mind that this team currently has an adjusted offensive efficiency of 110.6 right now. That is the highest mark the program has ever had since KenPom started tracking efficiency back in the 1996-1997 season. This season’s offensive efficiency is currently 2.7 points higher than last season, which was 2.3 points higher than the season before. Also of note, Rutgers has improved substantially from last season despite not having a full slate of non-conference games against inferior defensive teams compared to the Big Ten.

In regard to defensive efficiency, Rutgers is at 90.5, which is just 0.3 worse than last season. They are currently 12th nationally after finishing 6th last season.

What does it all mean? With five games to go, Steve Pikiell’s fifth team on the banks is the best offensive team the program has had in decades and equal to the best defensive team in decades.

Take a minute to appreciate that above all else.

What makes the position that Rutgers is in and the statistical standing they currently have even more impressive is the fact that they have played the 8th toughest schedule in college basketball so far this season.

A significant characteristic to this season is the strength of the Big Ten. The conference has been one of the best two or three leagues in college basketball for a few years, but this season they stand at the top by a wide margin.

Aside from the fact nine of the ten teams with the toughest schedules in college basketball all reside from the Big Ten, the league is trending towards a historic level.

The Big Ten has 11 teams ranked in the KenPom top 40 and only one team (Nebraska) outside of the top 75. The next closest conference, the Big XII, has six teams in the top 40 and three teams outside the top 100. Hence the almost 3 point difference in conference rating between the two leagues. After the Big XII, the Big Ten has at least a 5 point difference from every other conference in college basketball. Incredible.

Make no mistake, Rutgers is playing its best basketball in many years in the best conference that college basketball has had in many years. They have a good chance to finish in top half of the best conference or second best conference of the last 25 years, depending how the league as a whole finishes.

Of course, Rutgers still has to close out this season. However, if they stay the course, they’ll be primed for a memorable March run.

Thursday’s game at no. 3 Michigan will be the biggest challenge of the season, but it also brings the biggest opportunity. Rutgers has never beaten a team ranked as high as Michigan in program history, either in the AP Poll or KenPom. They’ve also never beaten Michigan themselves, as they are the last team in the Big Ten that Rutgers is winless against.

If the Scarlet Knights can play its best game (preview coming Wednesday) of the season and beat the Wolverines for the first time ever, it would the ultimate resume booster. Michigan is a chance for a high Quad 1 win and while it wouldn’t guarantee an NCAA bid, it would certainly increase their chances for a higher seed if they take care of business down the stretch.

In the final four games of the season after Thursday, Rutgers are solid to heavy favorites in three of those matchups (60%+) per KenPom and the fourth on the road at Minnesota is a toss up (49%).

Beginning Sunday, Rutgers has back to back games against NCAA bubble teams Maryland and Indiana. It won’t be easy, as there are no easy games in the Big Ten, but these are opponents that RU has already beaten on the road this season. Even with a loss at Michigan, if the Scarlet Knights can sweep the last home stand of the season, they would essentially be playing for seeding in the final two road games of the regular season and in the Big Ten Tournament. That would be fun and it would also extend winning streaks against both of those programs, which should be considered notable on its own.

Nebraska just beat Penn State on the road, one game after scaring the daylights out of Illinois two days prior, which they lost in overtime. This reiterates the point that there are no nights off in this conference. While they might be considered a Quad 2 opponent by the time Rutgers plays them, winning that game would still avoid a potentially resume damaging defeat. Remarkably, the only Quad 2 loss of the season for Rutgers was at Michigan State.

They’ll end the regular season at Minnesota, where the Gophers are 13-1 at home, including 6-1 in Big Ten play. Even though Rutgers just beat them recently at the RAC, winning the rematch will be difficult to do. On the surface, Minnesota is somewhat similar to the Rutgers team of last season, in that they are dominant at home and struggle on the road. However, the comparison between Minnesota this season vs. Rutgers last season is not really that close once you dive deeper. The Gophers have lost every Big Ten road game they’ve played, all but one by double digits. Simply put, they’ve been non-competitive on the road. Rutgers won on the road twice and had six losses by two possessions or less last season. Fortunately, the Scarlet Knights have been far better on the road this season and at 3-4 have three opportunities to win one more and set the program high mark for Big Ten road wins in one season. It’s just another reason why their resume this season is stronger that last year.

The math is simple. Rutgers needs to finish the regular season with a 10-10 Big Ten record and they’ll be guaranteed an NCAA Tournament berth. I know some fans will cringe after that sentence, but if you consider how historically strong the Big Ten is this season, it makes perfect sense. There is also the possibility that Rutgers can potentially get to 10 wins by sweeping Indiana and Maryland, likely the 8th and 9th best teams in the conference. If that happens, it would really make the end of the 30 year drought a certainty. Beat just one of those two teams and win at Nebraska, they’re also a lock. Lose the next three and yes, we can all start to panic and all will feel normal again. However, my non-medical advice is to listen to Dave White and remember to breath, as well as don’t take this season for granted.

I know it feels strange, but get your dancing shoes ready.