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Takeaways on Rutgers men’s basketball’s 2021-2022 schedule

With Wednesday’s release, the road back to the big dance is now paved. How the Scarlet Knights navigate down that road will determine their postseason fate.

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The Big Ten released its men’s basketball schedule for the 2021-2022 season on Wednesday. While pairings were previously released, we learned of specific dates as well as the complete non-conference schedule for Rutgers.

“I’m very excited to play another challenging schedule and the opportunity for our great fans to pack the RAC once again,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. “When we last had Rutgers Nation at The RAC, we sold out nine consecutive games and I am eager to continue that streak when we get back in action. I can’t wait to play again in a sold-out RAC on November 10 in front of the best fans in the country.

“Coming off our program’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in 30 years, we’ve assembled a tremendously talented roster for this upcoming season,” Pikiell added. “Our squad will be tested throughout this schedule, as we compete both in nonconference play and throughout a 20-game slate in the nation’s best conference. We will have numerous challenges throughout conference play in a league that features several ranked programs and some of the top players and coaches in the country. It’s going to be an exceptional season and I can’t wait to get started.”

Let’s first focus on key stretches of the schedule this season before reviewing the entire non-conference slate.

From November 30 to December 12, Rutgers plays a challenging four game slate over 13 days. They host Clemson in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in a rematch from last season’s First Round matchup in the NCAA Tournament, which obviously RU was victorious in. Then the first two Big Ten games take place and they are a doozy with a road game at Illinois and then Purdue at home. The four game stretch finishes at Seton Hall. When it’s over, we’ll have a good idea how good Rutgers really is at that point in the season. Anything less than a 2-2 record during this stretch will make this a wake up call, while anything better would give real belief that Pikiell’s team was head towards having a great season.

I’ll put Michigan at home on January 4 in its own category. This game will come with a ton of pressure. It will be the third Big Ten contest following two difficult matchups so regardless of their record at this point, it will be a huge opportunity for a statement win. The Wolverines will be in the middle of a odd stretch where they play at UCF on December 30, head back to Ann Arbor and then travel to Piscataway three days later. In addition, they have a home showdown with rival Michigan State following the Rutgers game. (Hat tip to Kevin Gengler for tweeting this game’s unique setup). The Scarlet Knights have never beaten Michigan and this matchup is certainly a chance to finally break through against a team that could be road wary and looking ahead at Sparty.

Rutgers then enters an intriguing but challenging eight game stretch which includes five of them on the road. However, it’s a chance to make a serious push up the Big Ten standings as only Maryland, who they play twice in this stretch, is likely to be projected ahead of them in the preseason polls. A home game with Iowa, two games with Nebraska, and winnable road games at Penn State, Minnesota and Northwestern are included. Taking advantage of the January slate is a must for Rutgers heading into a very difficult February schedule.

This is as challenging a stretch that I can remember for Rutgers for this many games in a row since joining the Big Ten: Michigan State and Ohio State at the RAC, at Wisconsin, Illinois at home, away games at Purdue and Michigan followed by Wisconsin at the RAC. Absolutely BRUTAL! Anything less than 2-5 could be extremely damaging to the final record, while anything better could clinch a top half of the Big Ten standings finish.

They finish at Indiana and at home for senior night against Penn State. This last week gives them an opportunity to head into the postseason with some momentum, especially if they hold their own during that aforementioned brutal stretch of play leading up to it.

Taking care of business in the non-conference, holding their own in the four game stretch in December, taking advantage of a winnable extended January stretch and treading well enough to keep their head above water in February is the type of performance that will get Rutgers back to the NCAA Tournament.

As for the non-conference schedule overall, it’s not overly impressive. Here are the records and KenPom rankings from last season for each of the eleven opponents.

Clemson 16-8; No. 45

Seton Hall 14-13; No. 54

UMass 8-7; No. 118

DePaul 5-14; No. 141

Lafayette 9-6; No. 262

Merrimack 9-9; No. 287

NJIT 7-13: No. 295

Rider 6-17; No. 316

Lehigh 4-11; No. 334

CCSU 5-16; No. 345

Maine 2-7; No. 346

Six of the eleven non-conference opponents were hovering around 300 or worse in the KenPom rankings last season. That’s not compelling or challenging at all. To be fair, No. 287 Merrimack did win 20 games in the 2019-2020 season including over Northwestern. Seton Hall and Clemson are quality games, but DePaul and UMass don’t offer major gains as opponents near the top of your non-conference schedule. I understand DePaul was agreed upon with the Big Ten and Big East, but it’s time to negotiate a better matchup moving forward. They will have chances to win road games early though playing at UMass, DePaul and Seton Hall.

From a historical perspective, I love seeing Lafayette and Lehigh back on the schedule. Rutgers is 69-47 all-time against Lafayette and have won the last six meetings, the last coming in 2019, with the series dating back to 1917. They are 68-36 against Lehigh but saw its 18 game winning streak snapped in the last meeting in 2008. The series dates back to 1907. The Scarlet Knights have only played three schools more than 100 times in men’s basketball….Lafayette, Lehigh and Princeton.

Let’s address this now annual omission briefly.

The Tigers were once again left off the schedule ever since Eddie Jordan dropped them after the 2013 season after playing them at least once every year dating back to 1927. The series began in 1917 and they’ve played 120 times with Rutgers just 45-75. The past three season ending KenPom rankings for Princeton were No. 190 in 2018, No. 175 in 2019 and No. 150 in 2020. I understand Pikiell’s preference to not load up the non-conference schedule due to the strength of the Big Ten, but Princeton would fit nicely in the middle this season based on last season’s KenPom ranking of No. 165 even though they didn’t play due to the Ivy League’s shut down during the pandemic. The hope here is that one year in the near future, Pikiell finally adds the program’s oldest and geographically closet rival back on the schedule. He deserves a ton of credit for keeping Seton Hall on this season’s schedule, but hopefully he can do the same with Princeton eventually too.

With all that being said, it’s hard to fault Pikiell’s overall logic with the non-conference slate when looking at the full schedule this season. Despite the non-conference slate not looking strong based on how these opponents performed last season, the schedule overall is very challenging with little down time. The Big Ten strength of schedule for Rutgers last season was seventh nationally and it could be in the top ten again this year with Michigan, Purdue, Wisconsin, Illinois and Maryland making up half of the conference games. The opening week of the season and the end of December during final exams and holidays contain those six opponents at the bottom of KenPom from last year. Other than that, Rutgers has to be ready night in and night out for a dog fight.

While we would all like to see a marquee game or two on the non-conference schedule, the key for Rutgers is getting to ten Big Ten wins. The margin for error in non-conference play is slim and going worse than 9-2 would be a major disappointment. If they can win the games they should outside of Big Ten play and finish .500 or better in the league, they’ll likely meet or exceed 20 regular season wins overall and punch another ticket to March Madness. Pikiell knows at the end of the day, how Rutgers fares in Big Ten play will ultimately decide their fate.

2021-2022 Schedule

Wednesday, Nov. 10 vs. Lehigh

Saturday, Nov. 13 vs. Merrimack

Tuesday, Nov. 16 vs. NJIT

Thursday, Nov. 18 at DePaul (Gavitt Games)

Monday, Nov. 22 vs. Lafayette

Saturday, Nov. 27 at UMass

Tuesday, Nov. 30 vs. Clemson (Big Ten-ACC Challenge)

Friday, Dec. 3 at Illinois

Thursday, Dec. 9 vs. Purdue

Sunday, Dec. 12 at Seton Hall

Saturday, Dec. 18 vs. Rider

Thursday, Dec. 23 vs. Central Connecticut State

Wednesday, Dec. 29 vs. Maine

Tuesday, Jan. 4 vs. Michigan

Saturday, Jan. 8 vs. Nebraska

Tuesday, Jan. 11 at Penn State

Saturday, Jan. 15 at Maryland

Wednesday, Jan. 19 vs. Iowa

Saturday, Jan. 22 at Minnesota

Tuesday, Jan. 25 vs. Maryland

Saturday, Jan. 29 at Nebraska

Tuesday, Feb. 1 at Northwestern

Saturday, Feb. 5 vs. Michigan State

Wednesday, Feb. 9 vs. Ohio State

Saturday, Feb. 12 at Wisconsin

Wednesday, Feb. 16 vs. Illinois

Sunday, Feb. 20 at Purdue

Wednesday, Feb. 23 at Michigan

Saturday, Feb. 26 vs. Wisconsin

Wednesday, March 2 at Indiana

Sunday, March 6 vs. Penn State

March 9-13: Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis