So here we are, 11 games into the 2016-17 Rutgers basketball season and the Scarlet Knights already have 10 wins. Even with a small sample size, it’s obvious that this team is light-years ahead of the Eddie Jordan-era programs.
Rutgers’ opponents this year haven’t been of the best caliber. However, with that said, does the fault of a weak non-conference schedule fall at the feet of head coach Steve Pikiell and Co.? Absolutely not. These match-ups were determined far in advance. All that Rutgers is doing is playing (and beating) everyone they happen to line-up against.
When the season kicked off, it’s safe to say that not too many people had them going into conference play with such a good record. Well, at least one did.
The Scarlet Knights have two more games to play before it’s time for Big Ten play. Both remaining games are against tri-state rivals; and both remaining games will be played in NBA arenas.
Rutgers plays Fordham at Madison Square Garden as part of the MSG Holiday Festival on December 18th, followed by a December 23rd game at “The Rock” against Seton Hall in the Garden State Hardwood Classic. Both games will have a little extra juice since they’re rivalry games, but a two-game sweep isn’t a crazy expectation.
This type of optimism brings me to my main question, does Rutgers have what it takes to make the NCAA Tournament? It seems crazy to even write those words, but let’s dig a little deeper here.
The Gift And The Curse Of Playing A Soft-Schedule:
Rutgers’ non-conference schedule can be seen as a blessing or a gigantic road-block. On the one hand, playing easy opponents have supplied the Scarlet Knights with a taste of winning—something completely foreign is past years.
The team is totally bought in to head coach Steve Pikiell’s vision, playing team-basketball and rebounding aggressively. In the process, the program has become the pride of the school, reigniting a fan base that was thirsty for meaningful basketball.
Rutgers’ fans are smart and know that even with the soft schedule, Eddie Jordan wouldn’t have the team playing as well as they are. The soft-schedule helped establish the culture, a solid-base to build off of going forward. Maybe that doesn’t happen if they had to play a bunch of high-end teams.
But there’s another side to the schedule as well.
Playing cupcakes may add to the win total, but it doesn’t do much for Rutgers in the quality wins department. To help you gauge how bad the first 11 opponents were as a collective, you need to look at where they rate nationally. According to the latest KenPom ratings, the Scarlet Knights strength of schedule ranks No.350 out of a possible 351 teams.
If Rutgers does get themselves into a position for a potential at-large tournament bid, not many of those first 10 wins will move the needle.
What they need to do is beat Seton Hall. The Pirates are in the KenPom Top-50 and would be Rutgers first quality-win. I honestly believe that if they can knock off Seton Hall, they will start to get a small national buzz. Not contender-buzz, but they will at least be recognized nationally for turning the program around. Beating Fordham can also build their resume, albeit on a smaller scale. The Rams hold the No.200 rating on KenPom and would be only the second Top-200 win for Rutgers (DePaul being the other).
Slaying Giants And Praying For The “Dance”:
This season could finally be the year that Rutgers doesn’t finish dead-last in conference play. Once the Big Ten’s doormat, it’s now realistic to believe that the Scarlet Knights can finish with a .500 conference record.
With their improved chemistry, Rutgers can compete with any team in the Big Ten this year. The Scarlet Knights feature a nine-man core who have played in every game this season. Players are embracing their roles and it seems like each regular contributor has been the hero at least once in their 10-1 start.
The Big Ten schedule is a buzz-saw, there will be no Hartford’s or Central Connecticut’s to beat-up on once it starts. Playing strong teams night in and night out will take time to adjust to, but having a competent coach will certainly help.
If Rutgers can get to 20 wins, they’ll at least be somewhere near the bubble. If those 20 wins can include a Wisconsin or an Indiana, then the bubble will get much closer. The only way to rectify the soft non-conference opponents will be to win 20 games, and slay a Big Ten power (or three).
But even that may not be enough.
The only sure-fire route to the NCAA Tournament will be to dominate conference play. That seems unlikely, given the quality of teams in the Big Ten.
Postseason Dreams Turned Reality:
Rutgers will be in the neighborhood of 20 wins, but the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will not be issuing them an at-large bid. It’s just too-much, too-soon for a team who’s been dreadful in recent years. The record will look impressive, but there won’t be enough quality-wins to punch an NCAA Tournament ticket.
Grabbing an NIT bid is more likely, a place that Rutgers hasn’t been since 2006. Who knows, that tournament is right in their backyard, maybe they can win the whole thing.
Last year’s Northwestern Wildcats won 20 games and missed the “Big Dance”. This year, that is going to happen again in the Big Ten. That “magic number” used to mean something, but it’s slowly losing it’s luster. Teams get pushed in based on potential TV ratings (2015-16 Syracuse), leaving less-heralded programs fighting for NIT scraps. One day in the near future, hopefully the Rutgers and Northwestern’s of the world will get the benefit of the doubt.