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Rutgers basketball moves up the Big Ten ladder

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The last two seasons have marked a new level of success for the Scarlet Knights within the conference.

Illinois v Rutgers Photo by Benjamin Solomon/Getty Images

Take a minute to put aside the emotions of this season so far and the hopes for the postseason ahead. Make yourself remember back to what true pain felt like while watching Rutgers basketball in the early days of joining the Big Ten.

The Scarlet Knights amassed a record of 9-63 in the first four seasons joining the league. The first two seasons, which were the last as Eddie Jordan as coach, RU went 3-33. In Pikiell’s first two seasons, they went 6-30. Double the wins, but still miserable.

As I recently wrote, things really started to change at the end of that second season when Rutgers beat Indiana and advanced the Quarterfinals at the Garden for the Big Ten Tournament. The following season, with an expanded 20 game conference schedule, Pikiell led RU to a 7-13 record and a 12th place finish. It was the first time the Scarlet Knights had avoided finishing in last place in five seasons. Maybe this would be considered only baby steps for most programs, but for Rutgers it was like sticking a landing on the long jump.

Last season was a breakout campaign with an 11-9 record in Big Ten play, finishing in a four-way tie for fifth place but due to tiebreakers, earning the no. 8 seed for the conference tournament that was ultimately cancelled due to COVID-19.

Expectations continued to grow for this season and despite Rutgers becoming unpredictable from game to game, this team gutted out a 10-10 conference record. It’s enough to finally end the NCAA Tournament drought after 30 years, although that should have happened the year before if it wasn’t for a global pandemic.

Rutgers is on track to go dancing for the first time in three decades, but it’s also important to remember how far this program’s standing within the Big Ten has come.

The past two seasons is the first time Rutgers has won double digit conference games and finished .500 or better in league play since the 1989-1990 and 1990-1991 seasons.

Over the last two years, only six teams have produced double digit wins in both seasons and avoided a losing campaign.

Illinois has been the most dominant team, finishing with a record of 29-11.

Iowa has the second best record over that span at 25-15.

Ohio State is the third and final Big Ten team to produce back to back winning seasons in league action, compiling a record of 23-17.

Three more teams produced one winning season and finished with one season even at .500. You have this season’s champion Michigan having compiled a two-year record of 24-13, as they missed three games this season, as well as last season’s co-champ Wisconsin with a two year record of 24-16. And what about that sixth team???

Drumroll....it’s Rutgers. They are the only other Big Ten team to register double digit victories in back to back seasons, amassing a record of 21-19 over that time. After going just 16-76 the first five seasons in the league, the two-year win total is something to savor as this program is officially hanging from a higher rung up the Big Ten ladder.

Now it’s only fair to note that Maryland (23-17), Michigan State (23-17) and Purdue (22-17) had better overall two-year records in Big Ten versus Rutgers. However, all three teams suffered a losing record of 9-11 during one of the two seasons. While the Scarlet Knights were up and down this season, they were able to establish consistency from one year to the next. This is crucial as the program looks to continue to climb the Big Ten standings in the seasons to come.

The bottom line is Rutgers has officially gone from league and national laughingstock to a steady, middle of the pack Big Ten team. They finished tied for sixth this season with Wisconsin but earned the no. 7 seed in this week’s Big Ten Tournament due to a head to head loss to the Badgers.

Of course, you can always hope for more. Some fans lament losses to Nebraska and Penn State this season, but Rutgers played pretty bad in those games and didn’t deserve to win. The loss to Wisconsin was a great defensive effort that was wasted due to Rutgers having a terrible shooting night. That’s the one game I personally wished they could have back and it would have resulted in back to back winning seasons in Big Ten play and an outright sixth place finish.

You see what just happened? Even I got greedy. But remember too that Wisconsin was the no. 1 seed last season and with almost the entire roster intact, they earned the no. 6 seed this season. That’s how strong this conference and how hard it is to be consistently good over time.

Producing back to back seasons with double digit win totals is even more impressive if you take into account that KenPom ranks the Big Ten this season as the best league in college basketball over the past 20 years. Rutgers ended up finishing in the top half of the Big Ten during this historic season is an important measuring stick to hold up and wave across the league and light up on the recruiting trail.

It’s fair to wonder and speculate about what the ceiling is for Rutgers long term in the Big Ten and worry over what next season’s roster will look like. That’s what fans do and that’s fine. However, don’t let the accomplishments of the past two season’s slip past your mind, even if this team was uneven this year. Surviving the conference as well as they did could boost this team towards a memorable March run in postseason play.

On Tuesday, only Rutgers and Iowa had four different players receive to All-Big Ten honors. That’s another sign of major progress.

What Steve Pikiell has done based on where he inherited the program and where they are today is truly remarkable. Consider he is the first Rutgers coach to even make it to a fifth season since Gary Waters, which was four head coaches ago. Where Rutgers was in the Big Ten and where they are now is the most telling measure of how far this program has come. As postseason play begins don’t forget the progress that’s been made already no matter what happens.