It was not an easy road for Rutgers but what a satisfying one it was when its name was announced on Sunday night.
The Scarlet Knights have been selected as an 11 seed and will take on Notre Dame in the First Four on Wednesday in Dayton. This comes after Rutgers earned the 4th spot in the Big Ten Tournament with a 12-8 conference record. Over the course of the season, Rutgers became the first unranked team to defeat ranked opponents in four consecutive games. Also, this marks the second time in program history that the team will compete in the tournament in back-to-back seasons and first time in 46 years.
Players like Ron Harper Jr., and of course, Geo Baker have turned the program around in Piscataway. It is only right to think about the players and teams who have made this all possible. With the First Four beginning on Tuesday, it is the perfect time to look back at the history of Rutgers in the big dance.
The Scarlet Knights are making their eighth NCAA Tournament appearance all-time and have a record of 6-7 overall. They’ advanced to the second round five times, the Sweet 16 twice and the Final Four once.
Of course, we begin last season. Rutgers entered the tournament as a 10 seed and earned their first victory since 1983. The Scarlet Knights took down Clemson before moving on to take on second-seeded Houston. Rutgers fans, keep scrolling.
Rutgers held a lead late in the game and looked primed and ready for an appearance in the Sweet 16. In the end, it looked as though the Scarlet Knights took the air out of the ball a bit early and could not get anything going. Houston stormed back and eliminated Rutgers in shocking fashion.
The Scarlet Knights have made the tournament seven times in program history. It began in 1975 when Tom Young led Rutgers to their first tournament appearance in school history. Phil Sellers led the team in scoring with 22.7 points per game and added 9.4 rebounds a night. A 22-7 season ended with a 91-78 loss to Louisville in the first round.
Just one year later, the Scarlet Knights had the best season in their history.
Sellers once again led Rutgers with 19.2 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Mike Dabney added 19.1 points per contest as the Scarlet Knights finished the season 31-2. They entered the NCAA Tournament a perfect 27-0.
Rutgers was tested immediately but was able to survive and pick up a 54-53 victory over Princeton. This was the first tournament win in school history and it got the team going. They would win back-to-back games by double digits and advance to the Final Four to face Michigan. The Wolverines snapped Rutgers’ 30-game win streak and handed them a 86-70 loss and an exit from the tournament.
It was three years before Young led the Scarlet Knights to the tournament for the third time as head coach. They were able to get hot at the right time as they entered the big dance winning eight in a row, including three straight in the Eastern Athletic Association Tournament. James Bailey, who was taken wit the sixth-pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, scored 18.5 points a night to lead the Scarlet Knights.
Rutgers entered the tournament as a six-seed and was able to upset third-seeded Georgetown in the second round. They were eventually eliminated by No. 10 St. John’s 67-65.
The Scarlet Knights were back in the tournament for the fourth time in eight years in 1983. They came in off a loss to Temple in the A-10 Tournament but were able to take down eighth-seeded Southwest Louisiana in the second round. The Scarlet Knights were a nine-seed which means a date with No. 1 St. John’s was next. For the second-straight appearance, the Johnnies were the team to eliminate Rutgers.
The 1983 victory over Southwest Louisiana was the last victory in the NCAA Tournament for Rutgers before the 2021 win over Clemson. RU would return in 1989 after winning the Atlantic-10 Tournament Championship as a 13-seed and be taken down by No. 4 Iowa.
The last time in the NCAA tournament for Rutgers prior to last season was back in 1991. It was Bob Wenzel on the sideline and Keith Hughes dominating on the floor with 21 points and 10 rebounds per game. The Scarlet Knights were given a nine-seed and a matchup with No. 8 Arizona State.
Rutgers led by six at halftime but were blitzed in the second half. Arizona State scored 49 points in the final 20 minutes and picked up the 79-76 victory. Hughes finished with 21 points and 11 rebounds while Earl Duncan added 20 points. The Sun Devils were led by Tarence Wheeler and Isaac Austin, who scored 25 points a piece.
There was five head coaches and two conference changes since the Scarlet Knights were last in the NCAA Tournament before Rutgers ended the 30 year drought last season. Steve Pikiell has built a strong program and has done it in the best conference in the nation in the Big Ten. Rutgers has the makings of a team that could potentially be in action in the second weekend. They will certainly be a tough out and history shows at-large teams that win in the First Four can make a memorable run.
Rutgers has not had easy roads to the tournament in recent years. This should actually be their third consecutive trip if the pandemic did not cancel the 2020 tournament. The culture has changed in Piscataway and Rutgers has a chance to make a run in their bracket.