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Big Ten gauntlet prepared Rutgers for NCAA Tournament

Steve Pikiell, Ron Harper Jr. and Myles Johnson discuss the why the road ahead isn’t much different than the one already traveled.

Iowa v Rutgers Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

Rutgers suffered a disappointing 90-68 blowout loss at the hands of Illinois in the Big Ten Quarterfinals on Friday. It’s fair to note that this is the same Illinois team that beat Big Ten regular season champion Michigan by 23 points last week in Ann Arbor WITHOUT Ayo Dosunmu, the best player to wear the orange and blue. The Scarlet Knights were badly outplayed on the glass made clear by a -25 rebounding margin and they weren’t connected on either end of the floor. However, this loss doesn’t change the inevitability of what comes next.

Friday night’s loss marked the first time a Big Ten Tournament defeat will not be the last game played for Rutgers in a season. With a 15-11 record overall, a top half finish in the best conference in college basketball over the past 20 years per KenPom, and a NET ranking of 38 after the loss to Illinois, the Scarlet Knights are projected on average as a 9 or 10 seed per 103 projections summarized by the Bracket Matrix. Every bracketologist has Rutgers in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 years.

While this team had several poor and uneven performances this season, this group of players have dealt with adversity on and off the court but will ultimately achieve their goal of going dancing in March in spite of it.

“Tonight’s performance, it obviously wasn’t the expected outcome that we wanted,” said Myles Johnson, who finished with 6 points, 5 rebounds and 2 steals in only 16 minutes due to fouling out. He added, “But you kind of just have to close this book. The Big Ten Tournament is over for us. We have to go to the [NCAA] Tournament and you just have to be excited. We have more games to play. A lot of teams are going to be sitting at home after they lose, and that’s it. So, I think we have way more excitement. Once Selection Sunday comes and we get to hear our name, that’s going to bring a whole bunch more energy for everyone.”

Ron Harper Jr. was aggressive in attacking the rim in the loss to Illinois and led Rutgers with 21 points on 7 of 13 shooting along with 3 steals and 2 rebounds. On how this team will respond from the disappointing defeat, he said, “We just have to look forward. I often tell the guys after a loss you can’t do anything about the past. Coming off of a loss, coming off of a win, it doesn’t matter. This is the most important part of the season. So, you’ve got to stick with it. Stick with each other. We’re a bunch of hard-nosed, hard workers. Nobody expected us to get here. So, we just got to keep pushing forward. Today wasn’t our day, and that’s okay. So, we got to move on. It’s alright. So, we’re going to see what Sunday brings us and we’re excited.”

While Rutgers has struggled at times the past two months, a major reason why it was a difficult challenge may end up help give them an advantage with what lies ahead in the NCAA Tournament.

The Scarlet Knights have the 5th hardest strength of schedule in college basketball this season per KenPom. Six of its eleven losses have come to teams ranked in the top 7 of the current KenPom rankings. A seventh loss came at the hands of no. 11 Wisconsin.

What we learned in those losses is that Rutgers isn’t an elite team or has played close to it the past two months, which is why fans have rightly been frustrated by the performance of this team after a very strong 7-1 start to the season. However, they still own as good a win as any with the December victory over Illinois (KenPom no. 3), as well as an impressive win over Purdue (KenPom no. 16) without Harper Jr. and Cliff Omoruyi.

The point is that in a year when non-conference play was more limited than ever due to COVID-19, Rutgers is more battled tested than every team that will play in the NCAA Tournament next week except for fellow conference foes from the Big Ten. The Selection Committee will work to spread out teams from the same conference, which is a good thing when you play in the toughest one by far.

Conclusion? Rutgers has been through the wars on the court and then some, which could pay huge dividends once the madness begins.

“I think you saw a No. 1 seed today. So, you obviously have to play really good basketball in order to beat one of those kinds of teams,” said head coach Steve Pikiell. “Our whole league prepares you for really good teams. I mean, Michigan’s good. Obviously, Ohio State, Wisconsin, all these teams. Iowa. We’ve played them. We know we have to play better in those kinds of games. The one thing you get in this league is you get well tested on the different styles and all that. Really good coaches. Really good players. But you’re hardened when you play in a league like this.”

Harper Jr. cited the confidence they have after playing well enough to qualify for the NCAA Tournament the past two seasons, even though last year’s event was cancelled due to COVID-19.

“Yeah, I feel like this is our second year that we made it in a row,” Harper Jr. said. “Two years of playing in the greatest conference in sports. The best basketball conference in the country. There’s no debate. And it feels like we made it last year. But I feel like we’re battle tested. We play great teams night in and night out. There’s never a night off in the Big Ten. I’m just excited to get a taste of another conference for once.”

Johnson echoed the thought that playing in the Big Ten has prepared Rutgers well for the opportunity that lies ahead.

“I think just playing in the Big Ten in general, it’s the best conference there is. We have the toughest schedule out of all those other schools,” said Johnson. “Playing every team in the Big Ten prepared us for the Tournament better than any other league could have prepared us. So, we played tough opponents every single game and Illinois is just another one of the super tough ones. Having that experience in playing each team in the Big Ten is going to help us play some of the teams from some of the other conferences.”

On Sunday, the Scarlet Knights will hear its name called for the first time in 30 years. While fans and people associated with the program will have plenty to celebrate, the goal for this team should be to advance out of the opening round game they play. That should be the expectation for a team that finished in the top half of the best conference in years.

The answer to how they do it is simple. “It all goes back to when we defend and rebound,” said Pikiell. “It gives [us] a great chance to win.”

With Rutgers projected to be a likely 9 or 10 seed for the NCAA Tournament, they’ll face a difficult path forward in order to make a real run. Harper Jr. talked about the key to having success in the big dance.

“We have to be the most connected we’ve been in the last two years. We have to be the most connected group we’ve had in my three years here,” Harper Jr. said. “We have to play for each other. We have to shy away from being selfish. We have to always make that next pass. We have to team rebound, box out. When we step between those lines, it’s not doing it for the name on the back of the jersey, it’s doing it for the name on the front of your jersey that you share with your brothers, your coaches and everyone that supports us. If we bring that Rutgers basketball grit to the NCAA Tournament, I’m confident in facing whoever.”

“When we play our best basketball, we can make any type of run,” added Johnson. “We can be the team that goes deep in the tournament.”

We’ll soon find out if they can, but one thing is for sure. Rutgers is well prepared and battle tested.