Unfortunately, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights run in the Big Ten Tournament was stopped short in the second round. Northwestern beat them soundly, using a 31-0 run in the first half en route to an 83-61 win.
The loss dropped Rutgers to 15-18 on the year, leaving them short of the postseason for the 11th straight season.
Here’s a recap of the 2016-17 Rutgers basketball season.
Coming into the year, no one thought much of the Scarlet Knights. Nearly every Big Ten preseason projection had them finishing dead last in the conference at No. 14. Certainly not a surprise, as Rutgers only notched one Big Ten win in 2015-16, finishing the season ranked No. 293 by KenPom.
The only ray of hope was incoming head coach Steve Pikiell, a proven winner from Stony Brook. Pikiell came in preaching defense and rebounding, figuring that even a roster void of talent could compete based on effort.
Rutgers came out of the gates on an absolute tear, thanks in large part to a friendly schedule of cream puffs. The program won their first six games, even beating former Big East foe DePaul in the Gavitt Tip-Off Games.
However, once the ACC/Big Ten Challenge came along, they faced their first real test against the Miami Hurricanes. To everyone’s surprise, Rutgers hung in tight against ‘The U’, trailing only six points at halftime before losing 73-61. It was a nice sign of things to come for the Scarlet Knights, showing that they could compete against real competition. (Miami is currently ranked No. 32 by KenPom)
After the Miami game, Rutgers went back to playing a light schedule. They won their next five games, including a nice victory versus No. 196 Fordham in the Advance Auto Parts Holiday Festival at Madison Square Garden. By beating the Rams, Rutgers improved their record to 11-1, giving them their best start since 1975-76.
All the winning got the attention of a deprived fanbase, giving them hope for the first time in years. Rutgers fans started coming out of the woodwork, scattering the internet with ‘Knight and Day’ hashtags to signal the team’s marked improvement.
Only one non-conference game remained on the schedule, their annual showdown versus in-state rival Seton Hall. The game, now known as the Garden State Hardwood Classic, lived up to the hype and was my hands-down favorite contest of the year. Even though Rutgers ended up losing 72-61, they were up 32-23 at halftime and played great in the face of a hostile environment.
Despite the losing effort, the Rutgers basketball drum was beating as loud as ever. In fact, following the game the Scarlet Knights stood at No. 115 in KenPom’s ratings, the highest they would be in 2016-17.
Big Ten Play:
Rutgers conference schedule started off very slow, losing their opening game to Wisconsin, followed by losses to Penn State and Michigan State.
With their KenPom rating now at No. 138, the Scarlet Knights finally had a good showing on the road at Iowa. Although, they ended up losing 68-62, they had plenty of chances to win and it was the first time they looked like they belonged in the Big Ten.
Their next two games were a mixed bag, as they lost a close game at home to Northwestern and were blown out by Indiana on the road.
At 0-6 in conference play, things looked bleak for Rutgers. They were playing with great effort, but couldn’t find ways to win against better teams. All that changed in their next game versus Nebraska, though. Down by one in the closing seconds, Corey Sanders banked in a game-winning shot for a 65-64 triumph at home.
Following their first conference win, Rutgers lost by 12 to Maryland and then almost beat No. 15 Wisconsin at Madison Square Garden. They led the Badgers for a large portion of the game, but eventually fell in overtime.
Now halfway through the Big Ten schedule, Rutgers was 1-8, matching their conference win total from a year ago.
To start the second half of Big Ten action, Rutgers went on the road and beat Penn State 70-68. It was a landmark moment for the program, as it was their first ever Big Ten road win.
The win versus Penn State was a turning point in the season. They started playing with more confidence and stopped getting blown out as often. Even though they lost their next six games, they played well and had particularly good showings against Ohio State (loss by 6), Northwestern (loss by 4), and Michigan (loss by 4).
Entering their season finale, the Knights were 2-15, needing a win to give them their best Big Ten record to date. The only problem was that Illinois was coming to the RAC, needing a win to put them on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble.
On Senior Night, the Scarlet Knights showed up in a big way. Not only did they play spoiler to Illinois NCAA Tournament dreams, but they did it in dramatic fashion.
With less than 10 seconds left and the score tied 59-59, junior Deshawn Freeman buried a deep three pointer to put Rutgers ahead 62-59. Then, in typical Steve Pikiell fashion, the Knights got a huge stop on defense to secure the win.
Big Ten Tournament:
Playing as the No. 14 seed, the Knights were forced to take on the No. 11 seed Ohio State Buckeyes. In their brief history in the Big Ten, Rutgers had never won a conference tournament game. While on the other hand, the Buckeyes had won the entire tournament three times since 2010.
None of that mattered, as Rutgers was riding high off their season-finale win and came ready for battle. The program earned their first-ever Big Ten Tournament win, beating an aloof Buckeyes team 66-57.
The win was definitely the high point in Rutgers season, giving them much-needed respect from most of their naysayers.
In their second game of the tournament, things didn’t go as well, as a well-rested Northwestern team dismantled Steve Pikiell and company 83-61.
Regardless of the loss to Northwestern, the Scarlet Knights left the Verizon Center with their heads high, having more than doubled their win total from 2015-16.
It’s hard to say that a losing season was a success, but the Scarlet Knights finally showed the rest of the conference that they’re on the uptick and mean business going forward.
-Steve Pikiell, Head Coach: The architect of Rutgers rebuild and the driving force behind the ‘Knight and Day’ motto. Pikiell improved Rutgers defense from a team who allowed more than 80 points per game to a team who allowed only 67.1 points per game. He got the most out of the hand he was dealt and had his team believing in themselves. Rutgers fans love him and it’s safe to say that he will be in town for the long haul.
If you counted up all D-1 staffs that have done a better job than @RutgersMBB this year, you wouldn't need two hands.— Ian O'Connor (@Ian_OConnor) March 9, 2017
-Corey Sanders, Sophomore: Rutgers best player and overall leader was rewarded with All-Big Ten Honorable Mention honors this season. He led the Scarlet Knights in most offensive categories, including minutes (1,003), points (423), and assists (107). In the program’s first two Big Ten wins, Sanders led the way with 25 points in each.
In addition to his offensive prowess, Sanders took on a much bigger defensive role under his new head coach. He led the team with 44 steals and was routinely tasked with guarding the opposing team’s best player.
Sanders played in all 33 of Rutgers games.
-Mike Williams, Junior: Rutgers co-captain was probably the most improved player on the team. His 43 made three-point field goals was tied for the team lead, but his best biggest contributions came from his overall effort. Throughout the year, Williams proved that he had no problem banging around in the paint, making him one of the best rebounding guards in the conference. At the end of the regular season, the Brooklyn-native was honored with the Big Ten Sportsmanship award.
Williams played in all 33 of Rutgers games.
-Deshawn Freeman, Junior: Rutgers other co-captain was the best frontcourt player for the Scarlet Knights all year. In 27 minutes per game, Freeman nearly averaged a double-double, posting 11.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. However, he is most remembered for his game-winning three pointer in Rutgers season-finale.
According to Sports-Reference, Freeman led the Scarlet Knights in total win-shares with 3.1.
Freeman played in all 33 of Rutgers games.
-Nigel Johnson, Junior: The Kansas State transfer arrived ‘on the banks’ without much fanfare, but by season’s end was one of most beloved players on the roster. Although, he started 13 games in 2016-17, Johnson flourished in his sixth-man role at the end of the season. In his final seven games, the junior proved himself as a reliable scoring option, averaging 15 points and shooting 57.1 percent from beyond the arc (20-35).
Johnson paved the way for Rutgers first Big Ten Tournament win, going 8-8 from the charity stripe en route to a game-high 21 points.
-C.J Gettys, Senior: With little time between his hiring and the start of the season, Steve Pikiell was able to lure Gettys to Rutgers following a four-year career at UNC-Wilmington. Gettys turned out to be a godsend for the Scarlet Knights, bringing a winning attitude to a team who wasn’t familiar with the idea. Although, he struggled against some of the Big Ten’s quicker frontcourt players, Gettys was still able to contribute on a regular basis. In 22 minutes per game, the 7-foot Gettys averaged a career-high 7.7 points per game, while leading the team in field-goal percentage (54.4 percent).
Gettys played and started in all 33 of Rutgers games.
-Jonathan Laurent, Sophomore: Although, only playing 13.3 minutes per game, Laurent was used as a lock-down defender on Rutgers dramatically improved defense. With his long frame and constant hustle, Laurent proved to be one of the best wing defenders in the Big Ten. If I needed one Rutgers player to get me a stop on defense, I wouldn’t think twice about it, Laurent is easily my choice.
On offense, he had a reduced role from last year, but was still productive in spots. He poured in a season-high 15 points against Drexel, and also had seven clutch points in Rutgers triumph in the Big Ten Tournament.
Moving forward, Rutgers is in great position for their best season ever in the Big Ten next year. The program will only lose one of their regular rotation players, C.J Gettys, from this year’s team and have some nice recruits joining the fray.
Their success in 2017-18 will largely hinge on what Corey Sanders decides to do. Following his 2015-16 campaign, the Florida-native flirted with the idea of turning pro, before deciding to return to Rutgers. You can only imagine that he will do the same thing this off-season, but it would be in his best interest to hang around.
After all, Sanders seemed generally enthused by the strides Rutgers made this year and next season will be his last opportunity to play with teammates Deshawn Freeman, Mike Williams, and Nigel Johnson.
Rutgers needs to have a deep bench in order to execute Steve Pikiell’s high-pressure defense. He regularly goes 10 players deep, rotating in as many fresh legs as possible. It was succesful this year, but too many times they were left short of scoring options. They’ll need Issa Thiam and Eugene Omoruyi (both freshmen in 2016-17) to improve on offense if they want to compete at a higher level next season.