It’s February 4th, 2023 and Rutgers has just beaten Michigan State at the Garden. Mawot Mag went down with a scary leg injury, but the Scarlet Knights are riding high, starting the conference slate 8-4. The availability of Mag is a concern, but with Rutgers projected as high as a 4 seed in some brackets, many are very optimistic about their chances to finish the season strong.
Now fast forward a month to today. It’s now March 12th, Selection Sunday, and Rutgers has been left out of the NCAA tournament. In just over a month, the Scarlet Knights’ season has done a complete 180. Since Mawot Mag went down, Rutgers is just 3-7, and that’s what ultimately kept them out of the tournament.
Rutgers missed the tournament for a variety of reasons, but the biggest were the 4 losses against Quad 3 opponents, their poor performance without Mawot Mag in the lineup, and what would’ve been the worst strength of record among any team in the field.
First and foremost, Rutgers lost 4 Quad 3 games this year and had a poor strength of record which proved to be things they couldn’t afford to do at the end of the day. While a neutral site loss to Temple with 2 starters injured can be forgiven, losses to Minnesota, Seton Hall, and Nebraska cannot. This goes to prove the point of many that the Scarlet Knights must play a stronger non-conference schedule next year. Rutgers’s NCSOS ranked 342nd in the nation and played a contributing role in their missing out on March Madness. Despite multiple of those Quad 3 losses being in-conference playing a strong non-conference schedule would give Rutgers a margin for error in the Big Ten.
Fortunately for Rutgers, this is a very fixable problem. As a Big Ten program, there will be plenty of strong suitors who Rutgers would be able to schedule in the non-conference slate. Princeton, the Ivy League Tournament Champion of this season, is just 16 miles down the road, and they would be eager to play the Scarlet Knights. They need to play in some sort of non-conference tournament as well next season. One idea would be an MSG Invitational hosted by Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights would invite 3 other high-major teams (or good mid-major like Gonzaga, Houston, or Saint Mary’s) and each team would play 2 or 3 games in a round-robin style event. Regardless of how Pikiell does it, the bottom line is that Rutgers needs better non-conference opponents.
Next, and perhaps the biggest reason Rutgers was not included in the field of 68, is their performance since Mawot Mag went down against Michigan State. As mentioned earlier, Rutgers is just 3-7 since his injury, and truth be told, the Scarlet Knights just haven’t looked like a tournament team in recent weeks. Many (myself included) thought a win over Michigan and a close game against Purdue would be enough to push Rutgers back over the hump, but it was not. Overcoming major adversity like injuries is a huge part of any sport, especially college basketball where there are only 13 scholarship players on a team. Rutgers did not do a good enough job of that this year, but they’ll learn from this experience and will likely do a better job of dealing with it should it happen again.
When a guy goes down, every coach will tell you it’s a next-man-up mentality, but that’s easier said than done. Next season, more emphasis needs to go into having a deeper bench. Before Mawot Mag went down, Pikiell played a mainly 7 man rotation with guys like Derek Simpson, Dean Reiber, and Antwone Woolfolk getting time here and there. A team that didn’t have much depth to start with was stretched thin when one of their starters went down.
It is imperative that Rutgers has a deeper rotation next season, as not only will it allow the Scarlet Knights to overcome major injuries. but the starters won’t be worn down from playing 35 minutes every game in the ever-physical Big Ten.
Rutgers will lose Caleb McConnell after the end of this season, but will likely return most if not all of the rest of the core players on this team. It remains to be seen with the transfer portal, but there’s no reason to think that Rutgers can’t make a run back to the NCAA tournament next year. The addition of Gavin Griffiths will be a big one and he will bring some offensive firepower to a team that desperately needs it.
If you look at the NET and other criteria for selecting tournament teams, it paints a clear picture of the “RU Screw”, but at the end of the day, Rutgers should have never left this up to the committee. While it is extremely disappointing that the committee seemed to have thrown out many of their metrics in favor of how Rutgers played without Mawot Mag, it’s hard to argue that Rutgers has looked like a tournament team in the time since he went down.
Combine that with 4 Quad 3 losses on the season and in turn a poor strength of record, and it almost seems that Rutgers was tied to winning the Big Ten tournament this past weekend. Whatever the true reason is for the Scarlet Knights being left out, the easiest way to prevent this from happening next season, is to be firmly off the bubble.