It’s a normal thing to be emotional after a loss. Friday’s 84-74 defeat at the hands of No. 5 seed Iowa, arguably the hottest team in the country, ignited a powder keg of emotions across the Rutgers fan base. The loss also guaranteed that the Scarlet Knights will be the most talked about team on the bubble leading up to Sunday night’s NCAA Tournament Selection Show. Add in the fact that whatever their fate becomes will help write the final chapter of one of the most important and successful classes in program history. This is a high drama moment and all that can be done is to wait.
Championship Week doesn’t get the same hype as the big dance, but it’s in some ways even more fun for true college basketball junkies. Every team in the sport has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament with a magical run in their own conference tournament. Wins and losses feel bigger, even if that isn’t really the case. For some teams, winning in your conference tournament can change the entire outlook of your season for the better. For others, a win or loss doesn’t change the inevitability that their seasons are coming to an end.
The most important question that Rutgers fans want to know is what does it mean for Steve Pikiell’s team?
Rutgers is the most intriguing, confusing and unpredictable NCAA Tournament bubble team not just for this year, but possibly ever. Let’s look at their current profile.
NET Ranking; No. 78 (as of Saturday)
KenPom: No. 75
KPI: No. 61
Quad 1 Record: 6-6
Quad 2 Record: 3-4
Quad 3 Record: 4-2
Quad 4 Record: 5-1
Two additional ways I wanted to break down the data was looking at Quad 1 road wins and wins against teams ranked in the Top 40 of the NET rankings.
Q1 Road Wins: 2
Top 40 NET Wins: No. 13 Purdue, No. 14 Iowa, No. 15 Illinois, No. 25 Wisconsin, No. 26 Ohio State, No. 34 Michigan, No. 36 Michigan State, No. 38 Indiana .
Take a step back off the ledge and take a minute to focus on the positives. No bubble team has as many Quad 1 wins as Rutgers. There are plenty of teams safely projected into the field that don’t have that many.
No bubble team has as many top 40 NET wins. Maybe that’s not a specific criteria that the committee uses, but it does feel like it highlights what should be most important. Rutgers has beaten 8 teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament. That’s proof they belong. And perhaps there is reason to believe that the selection committee does rely on this type of data even more than they do with the NET rankings as a whole.
CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm, one the of the original bracketologist’s around, wrote the following last season in how the committee applies data:
“For example, a team’s individual NET ranking is not nearly as important as those of its opponents. The NET is designed to define the quadrants, not to choose or seed teams. It’s not a tiebreaker or anything like that. Teams are not compared by NET or other computer rankings. One factor not listed because there is no way to measure it is the “Eye Test.” That term gets thrown around a lot because it is part of the subjective nature of the selection process. The committee members watch a lot of games. They will form some opinions based on that.”
Palm also wrote that non-conference strength of schedule and overall strength of schedule are important factors. Rutgers is 298th (bad) and 33rd (good) respectively.
Could it be that there is so much of a focus on determining projections by using data and analytics by so many bracketology sites that there is lack of emphasis on what the committee actually bases their decisions on? Doesn’t it make common sense that predictive metrics should help make decisions in regard to seeding the NCAA Tournament while results against the best teams you play should help determine which teams ultimately deserve to go dancing?
We know Rutgers passes the eye test and we know they have the most quality wins of any bubble team. That should give confidence that despite historically poor metrics, this team does have a lot going for it based on additional criteria that the committee considers. The key question is whether the committee values many great wins more or less a couple of bad losses?
“Man, if we’re not in, I don’t know what to tell you, man,” said Ron Harper Jr. after the loss to Iowa. “I feel like this team has proved itself, proved we’ve gotten better day in and day out. Every time we come off a tough loss, we always bounce back. So this team definitely deserves to play in March. We’re a great team and I feel like we can make a lot of noise in March. We’re just going to hope the selection committee sees us through, but we feel like we should definitely be playing.”
Added Geo Baker, “Finish top 4 in the Big Ten, beat other teams that are going to make it, too, so I feel like we’re in a good position.”
One variable in which we don’t know how much it will be a factor is that Baker missed the ending of the loss to Lafayette and the entire defeat to UMass due to an injury. I’m not saying it’s a huge factor, but I do think it it should part of their criteria. Terrible losses regardless, but something worth noting that their two worst defeats came without their longtime leader.
After the loss to Iowa, Pikiell explained why he feels Rutgers deserves to go to dancing.
“I can’t be any more confident. I think we win games, too,” said Pikiell. “So if you play in this league, I don’t know if people realize this league, every single game, all the ranked teams, and the teams that aren’t ranked, are only not ranked because they’re losing to ranked teams. The gauntlet of this league and what our guys had to do and play through, and I think we’re playing well, too, at this time of the year. You know, we get that great opportunity and if we do, we’ll take advantage of it.”
Pikiell wasn’t the only coach after the game that believed Rutgers deserved to make the NCAA Tournament.
“You know, I’m kind of baffled by the question. I’m not trying to be disrespectful. To me, it’s a no-brainer. That’s an NCAA Tournament team,” said Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery. “But the wins that they had this year, the wins they had on the road with the talent that they have, you know, I think sometimes you look at metrics, but sometimes, you know, like we say, you have the eyeball test. You look at that team and it’s an NCAA Tournament team, and that’s what they are.”
Most national analysts agree. If March Madness is about putting the best teams in the same tournament and letting it play out with excitement at every turn, Rutgers fits that bill. If it’s about what computer metrics predicts how a team will perform, then Rutgers is doomed. The most unpredictable team in college basketball put themselves in this position. Their fate is in the hands of the Selection Committee now.
Rutgers is the most polarizing team with the most complicated resume. Putting them in the First Four rewards their positives and punishes them for bad losses and metrics without leaving them out altogether. If they do make it, they’ll go in with the worst NET ranking ever. It feels completely appropriate for this team to make even more history by doing so.
“This group has been great all year long, they’re warriors,” Pikiell said. ”We just didn’t have enough today and that’s on me, too. I’ve got to make sure to have these guys more like us. Today, there were minutes that we weren’t us, and that’s what bothered me the most, but that’s on me. We’ll be ready for the next one.”
Let’s hope the next one is on a court with the NCAA Tournament signage hanging and displayed throughout the arena. Even if it is Dayton for a first four game, which feels appropriate with the highs and lows of this season, Rutgers just needs to get into the tournament. If they do, they could make a special run and are equipped to do so. They have to get there first though and at this point, I truly think there is a 50/50 chance. I love this team either way. There is no doubt the waiting is the hardest part.