Exactly 32 days ago, Rutgers walked off their home court after a loss to, then No. 9, Wisconsin having dropped four games in a row and five of the last six. Following that loss, the Scarlet Knights entered a crucial stretch of the schedule and found a way to survive.
After a forgetful performance against Penn State, it all turned on a Sunday afternoon in Bloomington. The Scarlet Knights snapped their five-game losing streak with a win over Indiana. Three weeks later, Rutgers has won five of their last six games. They navigated through the first crucial part of the schedule and will now have to do it again with five games left on the schedule.
Rutgers is currently 12-7 overall with an 8-7 record in the Big Ten. On Thursday night, they will travel to Ann Arbor to take on No. 3 Michigan in what will certainly be their biggest test of the season. A win against the Wolverines would do many things for the 2020-2021 basketball season and the program at large.
”We don’t really talk about that, we have Michigan this week and five games left,” Steve Pikiell said during his Tuesday news conference. “After those five games, then we will start talking about that other stuff. We don’t spend a lot of time on it, I know everyone else does, but we don’t.”
Pikiell is right. We have talked about it, fans have talked about it. Rutgers has a chance to accomplish many firsts with this victory.
The Scarlet Knights have never defeated Michigan. They are 0-13 all-time including two meetings last season. Rutgers has never taken down a top-three team in the AP Poll. Michigan is currently ranked third with a 14-1 record, the only loss came to Minnesota back in January. Finally, the Scarlet Knights are looking to clinch a spot in the tournament for the first time in 30 years.
A tournament berth is not contingent on this victory but it could be a huge boost for Rutgers. They are currently comfortable in the tournament picture. The Scarlet Knights are currently ranked 26 in KenPom with a NET ranking of 30. If the season ended today, Rutgers is looking like a seven or eight seed in the tournament. A win over Michigan could catapult them into a higher seed.
“Michigan has been great since I’ve been in the league,” Pikiell said. “Elite program. We got to go on the road. Another coach in our league said this is a national championship-type team. You got to play well. It’s another thing we’ve never done. It would be great for our guys.”
So how can the Scarlet Knights get this done on Thursday night?
It begins on the defensive end. In their one loss, Michigan was held to 57 points on 39.3% from the field and finished 6-22 from three-point range. This is easier said than done. The Wolverines currently rank third in the Big Ten averaging 78.9 points per game and shoot 37.9% from beyond the arc.
Michigan currently has three players averaging double-figure points per contest. This is led by Isaiah Livers with 15 per contest. Franz Wagner scores 12.1 a night while Hunter Dickinson has made an impression in year one.
“He doesn’t play like a freshman. That’s the first thing that I say every time I watch him play,” Pikiell said of Dickinson. “He’s poised. He plays beyond his years. He’s huge and he can finish with both hands which is rare for a big guys. He’s a really good rebounder the way he controls his body and even when you have him boxed out, he’ll come up with a terrific rebound and they get the ball into him.”
The 7-1 freshman is averaging 14.9 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. The duo of Myles Johnson and Cliff Omoruyi will have to make things difficult for him. They can do this by being physical downlow. This is something the Scarlet Knights struggled with during Omoruyi’s absence early in the season but it has improved recently.
The backcourt of Rutgers will have to be ready against the attack of Michigan. Ron Harper Jr. still leads the team in scoring with 16.1 points per game despite his recent struggles. Jacob Young has thrived in his new bench role while Geo Baker has finished in double-figures in five of the last six games.
“Every year Michigan is also good offensively, so you don’t just have problems on one end of the floor, you have problems at both ends of the floor,” Pikiell said. “They have great size, you have Wagner at 6-9, Livers at 6-8, 7-1 at the center spot and really good guards who share the ball well. They can put five guys on the floor at all times who can shoot the ball from deep.”
Rutgers is looking to avenge two losses to Michigan last season, including their only loss at the RAC. The history between these two teams goes back to the 1975-1976 season when a 30-0 Rutgers’ team was handed their first loss by the Wolverines. The postseason history continued in 2004 when Michigan took down the Scarlet Knights in the NIT Championship.
History is not on their side but this could be a good time for Rutgers to catch Michigan. The Wolverines are coming off a victory on the road against Wisconsin where they trailed by as many as 14 in the second half. Just three days after hosting Rutgers, Michigan will head to Columbus to take on No. 4 Ohio State. The Scarlet Knights will have a chance to trip up Michigan and catch them in a potential look-ahead situation.
This win would not guarantee Rutgers a tournament bid but it would put them pretty darn close. The Scarlet Knights will have four winnable games to finish the season, three of which they will be favored in. This team has been playing much better in recent weeks and can cap it off with a historic victory.
“If you look too far down the road you are in trouble, so we go one game at a time,” Pikiell said. “I like where our team is, I like health wise where we are and I like that we are getting better in certain areas. We continue to stay COVID free and we are playing good basketball right now, which is important at any time of the year in this league.”