It was a wild final weekend of the basketball regular season across the Big Ten.
Nebraska defeated co-Big Ten champion Wisconsin 74-73 on the road. Illinois trailed Iowa by 15 points before rallying for a 74-72 win to share the conference title with the Badgers. Purdue escaped rival Indiana with a 69-67 win. Michigan won at Ohio State 75-69 without Hunter Dickinson. Oh and Rutgers had a 15 point lead erased before surviving Penn State for a 59-58 victory.
Heck, even No. 4 Duke lost Coach K’s final home game by double digits to unranked North Carolina.
Weird things happened but the biggest takeaway is an obvious one.....a win is a win is a win. In the end, Rutgers made history with the most regular season wins in Big Ten play and earning the program’s highest seed ever and the coveted double bye in this week’s conference tournament.
“We have been down 15 and we’ve been able to fight back. It’s a 40 minute game, it’s 10 rounds,” head coach Steve Pikiell said. ““At the end there, we just didn’t execute. I thought there was really a couple of free throws and layups before that that could have wrapped it up. But I counted on my defense. Our defense stopped them. You just have to win the game. We were able to do that. I told our guys it’s going to be a one possession game. I certainly didn’t lie to them.”
In the last three years on the final day of the regular season, Rutgers outlasted Purdue on the road in overtime, Minnesota on the road in overtime and now Penn State by 1 point after a missed three-point attempt.
“I knew it was going to be like that,” said Geo Baker after his final game at the RAC. “It felt that way. We have been in that position a lot of times. A lot of veterans here and a great coach, we just found a way to win.”
Former Rutgers great Jim Valvano coined the phrase “survive and advance” in regard to postseason play in March. His former team has essentially been playing with that mantra since January after the poor early season start put them in a major hole. They’ve fought their way back multiple times this winter.
In 30 days, Rutgers went from a dead team walking in losing 3 of 4 game to teams that finished 10th or worse to earning a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament. They were 12-9 overall and 6-5 in Big Ten play on the morning of February 5 ahead of hosting Michigan State. They finished the regular season with a 6-3 record that included the historic four game winning streak and then closing the final week with two wins by one possession each.
Pardon the lack of research, but this has to be the most improbable month in program history.
As of Monday morning, Rutgers is projected to make the NCAA Tournament in 79 of 123 bracketology predictions nationally per the Bracket Matrix. Their average seed projection is 11.54. Their current NET ranking at No. 76 would make history as the worst of any team to earn an at-large berth to the big dance. Of course, they can improve on it with a win in the Big Ten Quarterfinals on Friday.
“I know how we are playing and not only can we be in that thing, we are going to win some games too,” Pikiell said when asked about the possibility of playing in the NCAA Tournament. “This is a really good basketball team.”
Led by a group of seniors that believed in Rutgers before the program was anything other than a last place team in the Big Ten, this team has achieved unprecedented success.
Only six Big Ten teams have won ten or more regular season league games in each of the past three years. They include Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa and Rutgers.
Not Purdue. Not Michigan State. Not Maryland. All programs with blue chip recruits and much more acclaim in the conference and across college basketball.
Times aren’t changing. They’ve changed. Rutgers has established itself as a consistent top half Big Ten team.
“When we all got here, we couldn’t imagine our journeys being like this,” said Ron Harper Jr., after the win over Penn State. “We wouldn’t rather do it any place else. The fans showed up all season. The best home court advantage in college basketball. It means a lot for us to get this win on our last game at Jersey Mike’s Arena. There is still so much more basketball left to play. We are going to keep going out there putting that Rutgers on our chest and try to represent the state.”
Harper Jr. added, “We sacrificed a lot for this program and for this place. We’ve done some special things here.”
It’s the second week of March and Rutgers is one win from making more history in advancing to the Big Ten Tournament semifinals for the first time ever. They’re six days away from finding out if they achieved back to back NCAA Tournament berths in consecutive seasons for the first time in 46 years.
As this team ventures towards unchartered territory, their belief in one another and their experience in grinding out the past few seasons with so many high pressure, close game situations has them truly battle tested. Like Sunday, the journey is full of stress and close calls. There are no points awarded for style or beauty. They went 6-2 in one possession games in Big Ten play this season. That’s what matters and winning those types of games will serve them well as they enter the win or go home phase of the season.
In the end, it’s the destination that matters and Rutgers has proven to have enough intestinal fortitude time and time again. Buckle up, the postseason is here and the Scarlet Knights have plenty to play for.
“At the end of the day, you either win or you lose,” said Baker after the win over Penn State. “Nobody’s going to talk about the details. We found a way to win at the end.”
Now that March inches closer to Madness, let’s hope this team continues to find as many ways as possible to keep winning. As they’ve proven once again, there is no reason to doubt this program any longer.