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92 Days to Big Ten Basketball: Can Rutgers Climb Out of the Big Ten Cellar?

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The Scarlet Knights had a nightmare of an inaugural season in the Big Ten. Can they manage to avoid last place in 2016?

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday I was thinking about what I wanted to write about for today's countdown post, with most of the topics I've been brainstorming being articles intended for later days. After thinking for a little bit I decided to go with a Rutgers question that I thought of earlier in the week, unbeknownst that a similar question would also be asked yesterday. That being said, while there are people wondering if Rutgers can eventually become a relevant Big Ten basketball program (and not just a way for the conference to expand their media market), that's a question for a later day. For now I'm just curious if the Scarlet Knights can manage to not finish last a second season in a row.

The good news for Rutgers is that outside of Penn State (excluding Ohio State's several seasons where they had wins vacated due to NCAA violations), no team has finished last in back-to-back seasons since Northwestern did it in the mid-90s. Of course the problem is Rutgers isn't exactly a prominent basketball school and the possibility of their team being similar to the traditionally bad Penn State and Northwestern programs is a legitimate possibility. What makes that even more dreadful is Rutgers location should at least aid the team by providing a fertile recruiting base. When everything is said and done, though, the Scarlet Knights haven't made it to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and haven't had a winning record in almost a decade (19-14 in Gary Waters last season back in 2005-06).

Luckily for Rutgers there seems to be some actual help on the way, with the school starting to finally work on developing their facilities for their athletic programs. Now Rutgers fans can start hoping that the improvement they saw in football back under Greg Schiano can happen with a basketball program that has also been historically awful. But before Rutgers attempts to fight their way towards relevancy, they need to find a way out of last place first.

Rutgers inaugural season in the Big Ten went about as expected, with the team living up to the media hype of finishing in last place. While the middle of the conference had a lot of preseason debate, the two unanimous predictions were the Badgers up top and the Scarlet Knights alone at the bottom. And when everything was said and done Rutgers finished two games behind 13th place Penn State, lost their last 15 games and only mustered up a total of 10 wins. While the season was a colossal dud, somehow Rutgers managed to pick up one of the most impressive wins in the conference, with an absolutely unexpected home upset over a short-handed Wisconsin team. Wisconsin may have had several injury issues, but losing to Rutgers was not even being considered at the time. Naturally, though, Rutgers followed up the win by losing all of their remaining games.

So that being said, when it comes to climbing out of the basement and up to 12th or 13th place, that really means Rutgers needs to probably surpass a team like Penn State or Northwestern, both of which have recently had an increase in optimism surrounding their respective programs. While fans of both teams will likely scoff at the idea of Rutgers being above them, Rutgers did split last year with Penn State and only lost to Northwestern by four, showing the three schools aren't too far apart. And while Northwestern should actually improve a decent amount next season (should and Northwestern should never really go together, just look at the Bill Carmody years when the team was on the verge of being a tourney team before inexplicably faltering numerous times), a team like Penn State is going to definitely be within reach of Rutgers next season.

With the Nittany Lions set to lose star D.J. Newbill, as well as Geno Thrope and Ross Travis, the team will likely rely heavily on Shep Garner and Brandon Taylor, both of which will need to improve considerably if Penn State is going to get any better. There's some solid additions by Pat Chambers in his 2015 recruiting class, particularly guard Josh Reaves and center Mike Watkins, but Penn State has finished tied for last, last place, tied for second to last and second to last in their four seasons under Chambers. Or in other words, they'd be the perfect team for Rutgers to surpass.

Of course losing three of their top four scorers and the core of their roster is going to put Rutgers in a tricky situation, but the reality is they can't slip any further than they did last year. The Scarlet Knights were also put into a problematic situation as it was their first season in a new conference and that led to a sizable amount of unfamiliarity with their opposition. Eddie Jordan has done a commendable job of luring a moderate amount of talent to Jersey, most notably four star point guard Corey Sanders, who Rivals ranks as the 75th best prospect in the 2015 recruiting class. Mix that with incoming forwards Jonathan Jean Laurent and Justin Goode, JUCO wing Deshawn Freeman and Bradley transfer Omari Grier and you have a roster with a bit of talent and some promise. It's not 'contend in the middle of the Big Ten' talent, but it's definitely enough of a start to not finish in last place again.

You have to start somewhere and the reality is there's no where to go but up now for Eddie Jordan and his Scarlet Knights. While the 2014-15 season was full of cringe-worthy defeats and a morale crushing 15 game losing streak to close the season, Jordan has managed to fill the roster with a surprising amount of talent that should fit into his system. Mix that with a university that is starting to finally to show some interest in their athletic programs and you have the foundation for Rutgers to start building from. The Big Ten is routinely hard to predict and there's always something unexpected going on, so when everything is said and done there's actually a legitimate chance that Rutgers won't finish in last place for the second season in a row.

The only question is what team will replace them at the bottom?