Despite the disappointment of November, the Rutgers men’s basketball have still managed to keep hope alive in mid-January for a potential second consecutive March Madness appearance. A much needed road win on Saturday at Maryland pushed the Scarlet Knights to 10-6 on the season and 4-2 in Big Ten play. Make no mistake, with a NET ranking of 116, this team has a lot of work to do. However, the opportunity to get the high profile wins needed to generate an NCAA Tournament worthy resume is absolutely on the table.
As much as winning on the road is important, holding serve at home is equally so. Currently 3-0 at Jersey Mike’s Arena, Rutgers is set to host five Quad 1 opponents among its final seven home contests. It begins on Wednesday night against Iowa, who are ranked No. 19 in both NET and KenPom. As usual, the Hawkeyes are a high scoring team, averaging points 86.2 points per game and ranked 3rd nationally in offensive efficiency. However, they remain average at best on the defensive end and are susceptible inside following the departure of Luka Garza. It’s likely the most winnable of any Q1 opponent set to visit Piscataway the rest of the season.
Other Q1 opportunities at home per NET rankings include No. 23 Michigan State (2/5), No. 25 Ohio State (2/9), No. 12 Illinois (2/16) and No. 18 Wisconsin (2/26). The other two games remaining at the RAC are must wins against two Quad 3 opponents in No. 107 Maryland (1/25) and No. 87 Penn State (3/6).
Obviously it is unfair to expect Rutgers to go 10-0 at home this season. That being said, anything less than 8-2 probably means dancing shoes will not be worn in a couple of months.
As for the road, Rutgers likely needs to earn 3-4 victories to get to what feels like a necessary minimum of a 12-8 Big Ten regular season record overall. After a 1-2 start, their next three games outside of Piscataway are all winnable. They are scheduled to play at No. 79 Minnesota, a Quad 2 opponent, on Saturday. However, the Golden Gophers postponed Wednesday’s game against Penn State due to Covid issues within their program. If they aren’t able to play RU this weekend, the Big Ten will be in charge of rescheduling. Regardless of what happens, the Scarlet Knights are then set to play at No. 204 Nebraska (1/29), a Quad 3 opponent and No. 72 Northwestern (2/1), a Quad 1 opponent.
It gets much more difficult from there, as Rutgers will face No. 18 Wisconsin (2/12), No. 7 Purdue (2/20), No. 61 Michigan (2/23) ad No. 34 Indiana (3/2) to conclude the regular season road slate. All are currently Quad 1 opponents and would do wonders if RU could win any of them.
All the analysis in the world can’t predict how this Rutgers team will perform the rest of the season. It’s a veteran squad that has been on a roller coaster since the season began. Now they have an opportunity to put it all together and go on a memorable run the rest of the way.
The defense is improving, while sharing the basketball and three-point shooting has been off the charts. Ron Harper Jr. has emerged as a top ten player in the conference and one that can carry RU to victory. Geo Baker leads the Big Ten in assist to turnover ratio and is helping this team in ways that don’t show up in the box score. Paul Mulcahy leads Big Ten play in assists and his confidence is growing. Caleb McConnell is a legitimate candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Cliff Omoruyi is arguably the most improved player in the league.
Yes, the starting five have been inconsistent and have played down to their competition.
No, they shouldn’t be counted out yet with the schedule they have remaining.
One quality that has always been strong among this group has been rising to moment when their backs are against the wall. After the win over Maryland, Steve Pikiell and Harper Jr. weren’t shy about expressing the desire to prove doubters wrong. Whatever added motivation this team takes from perceived slights seems to work, so hopefully they use every one of them for fuel.
The bench is still a concern, as is how Rutgers can win when Harper Jr. has an off night. This team has also not been as good on the boards as needed, nor have they scored in transition consistently enough. To make a real run, more progress on the defensive end is needed.
The schedule is such that a lack of improvement in any of these areas is probably enough to keep them from winning the required amount of games to get back to the NCAA Tournament or even true contention.
The biggest reason I’ve expressed criticism, concern and frustration with Rutgers’ performance this season so far is because I think they’re better than they’ve played. In my opinion, this group can be special if they are able to harness their true potential. They aren’t perfect and have flaws, but they’ve shown an ability to win without playing their best.
Even in the historic victory over then No. 1 Purdue, statistically they did not outplay the Boilermakers. I still look at that box score and am amazed they win that game. Even so, they came from 10 points behind with five minutes to play to shock the college basketball world.
Nothing has ever been easy with Rutgers men’s basketball for going on four decades now. Why should it be any different than with the most successful group during that time period?
I believe their best basketball this season is still ahead of them. It might not be enough to go dancing after the hole that’s been dug, but it just might be. Either way, I hope this team can come together in a way that we haven’t seen yet but some of us have always believed was possible. There is a reason I picked them to go 12-8 in Big Ten play before the season. I still think this team can achieve that record and possibly even better.
Time hasn’t run out on Rutgers men’s basketball quite yet. But the waiting has to be over. If a miraculous comeback is going to happen following the uninspired play to start the season, the meat of it has to be chewed now. They’ve done enough to set the stage for that possibility and deserve credit for getting off the mat of disappointment. Perhaps that will be as far as they go this season. Time will tell, but this group has done too much in their careers to be counted out yet.
This group always seems to play memorable games against Iowa in both victory and defeat. Wednesday is a chance to earn a statement win and keep hope alive.
Survive and advance is a mantra of tournament play. In that sense, the urgency of postseason play is already here for Rutgers. To get to March, they need to prosper the rest of January and survive February. And if that doesn’t happen, I just want this group to go down swinging.