It has been a roller coaster season for the Scarlet Knights — or should we say two years?
Last season, Rutgers finished 20-11 with a 11-9 record in the Big Ten. This had them well on their way to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991-1992 until COVID forced the season to be ended prematurely. Fast forward to this year and the Scarlet Knights are currently 10-6 with a 6-6 record in conference play.
Early on, Rutgers looked like they were well on their way to ending a 30-year tournament drought. They won their first six games of the season, including two Big Ten victories. After a statement win over Illinois, who was No. 13 at the time, the wear-and-tear of a schedule within the best conference in the nation began to negative impact Rutgers. They would go onto lose six of their next seven games. All of a sudden, fans were biting their nails wondering if their Scarlet Knights would turn it around. Recently, those hands have been pulled away from the panic button.
The turn began on a Sunday afternoon when Steve Pikiell decided to shake up the starting lineup. Paul Mulcahy and Caleb McConnell were inserted in place of Jacob Young and Montez Mathis. Three games later, Rutgers is looking like the team that climbed as high as No. 11 in the AP Poll early on.
The Scarlet Knights have won three in a row with two of the victories coming on the road. The offense is beginning to take shape and show it’s depth. A different player has led Rutgers in scoring in each of the last four games. Ron Harper Jr. still leads the team in scoring with 17.3 points per contest. Young is right behind him with 14.6 points a night while shooting 42.1% from three-point range.
The Scarlet Knights will host Minnesota on Thursday night but before they do, many tournament experts have made their predictions on if Pikiell’s club will qualify for the big dance.
The final verdict will be determined on Sunday, March 14. As of now, Rutgers sits in a solid position.
NCAA correspondent and Big Ten analyst Andy Katz has the Scarlet Knights as a No. 8 seed with their first round matchup coming against North Carolina. A victory would put Rutgers in a position to take on the No. 1 seed in their section. According to Katz, that would be the Villanova Wildcats. Rutgers has not met Villanova since 2013 and has not defeated the Wildcats since 2011.
Would this excite anyone out there? The Scarlet Knight faithful would like nothing more than to take down Villanova in the tournament. Talk about a “welcome back to the dance” draw for Rutgers with potential games against North Carolina and Villanova. Katz doing the Scarlet Knights no favors for their first tournament in three decades.
CBS Bracketology expert Jerry Palm also sees Rutgers as a seven-seed. This would line them up for a second-round matchup with No. 10 St. Bonaventure. The two-seed in the region would be Houston, who is currently No. 5 in the nation with a record of 15-1. This is a matchup that the Scarlet Knights could potentially take advantage of.
Houston’s lone loss was a one-point defeat at the hands of Tulsa in December. The competition of the American Athletic Conference is not that of the Big Ten. The Cougars have not been tested since January 6 having won their last six games by 17 points or more.
Finally, there is the King of Bracketology — ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, who currently has the Scarlet Knights in a tough position. The Scarlet Knights would enter the tournament as a No. 7 seed and face off with Clemson in the round of 16. If they were to get by the Tigers, No. 2 Texas would be waiting. The Longhorns would be able to matchup well with Rutgers on the perimeter with guards like Andrew Jones, Matt Coleman, and Courtney Ramey. It is noteworthy to mention that Lunardi has Iowa as the three-seed in this region.
Rutgers is currently 4-5 against Quad 1 teams. ESPN has them ranked 40th in BPI. Strength of schedule works in favor of the Scarlet Knights where they are currently fifth in the nation. The Scarlet Knights have a NET ranking of 32 along with a KenPom ranking of 26. There is still some time to improve in all areas.
There are no easy games in the Big Ten but the remaining schedule for Rutgers is favorable. Over their final eight games, the Scarlet Knights will face two ranked opponents and have six games against teams in the bottom half of the conference standings.
The magic number is 10. Double-digit victories in a conference like the Big Ten will be good enough to get the Scarlet Knights in the tournament. Right now, experts have them as a middle of the pack team. When looking at the schedule, it is not out of. the realm of possibility for Rutgers to get to 11 or even 12 conference victories. This would have them climbing up regions in the tournament.
It all begins with a matchup on Thursday night against Minnesota at the RAC.