There is some debate going on about whether or not Rutgers plays a strong enough non-conference schedule. With the strength of the Big Ten, Rutgers’s overall strength of schedule is always good, but some believe their non-conference portion leaves something to be desired.
The Big Ten is a grueling 20-game gauntlet of games, and can more than makeup for a weak non-conference schedule. Rutgers ranks dead last among the 14 Big Ten schools in NCSOS according to KenPom, but that ranking is slightly misleading.
Just one Big Ten team, Michigan State, played a top 100 non-conference schedule (according to Kenpom). They ranked 37th nationally and played four Quad 1 games: Neutral Site vs Gonzaga, Kentucky, Alabama, and Oregon. The Spartans played far and away the best non-conference schedule in the Big Ten and finished with the 25th-best strength of record in the country, despite winning under 20 games.
Nebraska had a NCSOS that ranked 101st in the country and 2nd among Big Ten teams, as they played three Quad 1 games: Neutral Site vs Memphis, Away vs Kansas State and Creighton. Unlike Michigan State, the Cornhuskers did not make the tournament as they simply did not win enough games to do so.
Here are the full Big Ten NCSOS Rankings. Teams that are bolded made the NCAA tournament.
Michigan State: 37
Ohio State 244
Penn State 303
As you can see despite ranking last in NCSOS, Rutgers doesn’t play a schedule that is truly far off from those of other Big Ten schools. Of the eight Big Ten schools that made the tournament, six played a non-conference schedule worse than 200th nationally, and two of those teams ranked in the 300s.
The important part about non-conference scheduling is playing a few good teams. Take Purdue as an example. The Boilermakers ranked just 140th nationally in NCSOS via Kenpom, but they played four Quad 1 games. They beat Marquette at home and went 3-0 at the Phil Knight Legacy event against West Virginia, Gonzaga, and Duke.
It didn’t matter that the Boilermakers filled the rest of their schedule with a few games in Quad 3 and several in Quad 4 because they played a few in Quad 1 and got impressive wins. Overall NCSOS doesn’t matter near as much as getting one or two quality wins outside of conference play.
Iowa (NCSOS 234) played three Quad 1 games outside of the Big Ten. They beat Iowa State at home and dropped two neutral site games to Duke and TCU. Despite losing a Quad 4 game against Eastern Illinois and two Quad 3 games throughout the season, Iowa still received an eight seed because they had quality victories.
Illinois (NCSOS 323) played four Quad 1 games in the non-conference portion of the season and filled the rest of their non-conference schedule with teams ranked well into the 300s of the NET. The Illini went 2-2 in those Quad 1 games earning impressive victories against Texas and UCLA. They are yet another team with a weak overall NCSOS that played a few strong games and earned impressive wins.
Rutgers played just a single Quad 1 game outside of the Big Ten, dropping a 68-81 contest at Miami, and because of that had no impressive victories outside of the Big Ten. It is clear that Rutgers needs to play better teams out of conference, but they don’t necessarily have to change their scheduling approach overall. Playing several home Quad 4 games is okay, so long as you play multiple Quad 1 games and earn some sort of quality win as well (obviously don’t lose the Quad 4 games either).
In general, NCSOS is important for teams that play in weaker conferences such as Gonzaga in the WCC, but for teams in the Big Ten, conference play allows for plenty of Quad 1 and Quad 2 opportunities that can outweigh a weak non-conference slate. Rutgers needs to gain quality wins in their non-conference schedule, but they don’t need to have a high-ranking NCSOS overall.