Another year, another abysmal season in the Big Ten for Rutgers. However, a glimmer of hope is cast towards every conference team—good, bad or worse—in the mad month of March.
All teams get a fair shot at clinching the coveted automatic NCAA tournament bid, and Rutgers is no different. Realistically, as the 14 seed, there is an incredibly minuscule chance of the Scarlet Knights of running the table and hoisting the trophy on Sunday.
But, crazier things have happened, right? (Well, actually...)
Let’s take a look.
The Scarlet Knights open their tournament run with a winnable game against Ohio State on Wednesday. Rutgers squared off against the Buckeyes one time this season on Feb. 8, where OSU scratched out a 70-64 win in Columbus.
That game was knotted with just over a minute left to play before Ohio State rattled off a mini-run to close out the contest. Rutgers were without Corey Sanders in the last five minutes, illustrating the perseverance possessed by the Scarlet Knights to stay within striking distance despite a disastrous conference record.
Speaking of Sanders, he is the key for the Scarlet Knights in the opening round. In three career contests against the Buckeyes, Sanders is averaging 20 points on 48 percent shooting.
If Sanders scores over 20, Rutgers could pull the first upset of the tournament.
If They Advance
If Rutgers can put it all together and beat Ohio State, the Northwestern Wildcats will be waiting in the second round. This potential matchup would likely be the pinnacle of Rutgers’ tournament experience, as Northwestern beat the conference’s worst team twice this season.
However, NU did not manhandle the Scarlet Knights in those games, by any means. Both contests were settled by single digits, including a four-point squeaker in Evanston on Feb. 18.
As it has been all season, a theoretical second round appearance for Rutgers would rely heavily on the backcourt duo of Corey Sanders and Nigel Johnson. The pair combined for 33 points and nearly pushed the Scarlet Knights to a shocking upset on the road.
If Rutgers advances to the second round, they will be ready. They know the program’s reputation across the league. And more importantly, they know that the tournament is the ideal opportunity to earn some respect from their peers.
As the tournament begins, Rutgers has its back against the wall. Holding the 14 seed, the team quite possibly has the most strenuous road to the championship of any team in this year’s bracket.
An advancement into the second round would be a moral victory for the Scarlet Knights after a regular season filled with low moments. While Rutgers could certainly beat Ohio State in the opening round, they likely will run into a wall against a team fighting for its NCAA hopes in Northwestern.
Johnson and Sanders will need to be the catalysts for the Rutgers offense, as they have been all season. When they go, the team goes. A mediocre performance by the duo would likely result in what is expected from many, which is a first round departure.