Last year’s Big Ten Tournament featured a number of notable events, but few were more fun than the surprising wins for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Fans of the team now hope that Rutgers and Steve Pikiell can do similar things with an improved squad this time around.
So, can Rutgers keep the magic going? Let’s take a look.
As the 12th seed, Rutgers will be forced to open up play in the Big Ten Tournament in the dreaded slate of Wednesday games. The Scarlet Knights will face off against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at 6:30PM in what should be an intriguing matchup.
Heading into the game, neither team has much momentum. Nebraska may have pulled off an upset win over Iowa on Sunday evening, but have lost four of the team’s last five games. Meanwhile, Rutgers lost its last two games of the regular season and four of six heading into Wednesday’s matchup. And both teams were well under .500 during Big Ten play.
The two teams only met once during the regular season on January 21st, when Rutgers grabbed a 76-69 victory over the Huskers at home. James Palmer led Nebraska with 22 points and Montez Mathis had 20 points for the Scarlet Knights. The teams are 2-2 against one another over the last four matchups.
On paper, this is a game that Nebraska should win. KenPom favors Nebraska and gives the Huskers a 62 percent chance of winning. Nebraska also has a better overall record and is higher on KenPom by a fair margin.
But with that said, this game looks pretty even. Nebraska might be a little better overall, but Rutgers is a really good defensive team that can muck things up. Rutgers has also clearly been better over the last few months. Expect things to be ugly for stretches and for it to be a low-scoring affair. The key for Rutgers will be trying to slow down James Palmer and to get Geo Baker going offensively.
-If They Advance
Should Rutgers pull off the (moderate) upset and beat Nebraska on Wednesday, it will then face off against Maryland on Thursday afternoon. The Terps entered the Big Ten Tournament as a five seed, narrowly missing out on the double-bye to Wisconsin.
There’s little denying that Maryland is a better team than Rutgers on paper. The Terps are 18th nationally on KenPom and an easy bet to make the NCAA Tournament. Anthony Cowan and Bruno Fernando are two of the better players in the league and Jalen Smith has been really good for a freshman.
However, Maryland has been pretty inconsistent as well. The Terps may have a 13-7 record in Big Ten play, but the team also lost to Illinois, Penn State, and Seton Hall already this season. And considering that only one of those three games happened on the road, there’s clearly some upset potential with Maryland.
Additionally, despite the fact that Maryland beat Rutgers in the lone regular season meeting between the two, that game happened on January 9th. Rutgers has improved substantially since then. In fact, Rutgers rose all the way from 109th to 77th on KenPom in the following two months or so. These Scarlet Knights are much more poised to pull off the upset than the team playing in early January.
Should Rutgers get past Maryland, it would then face Wisconsin on Friday afternoon. Like the potential matchup with the Terps, we know the Badgers are a better team than the Scarlet Knights. Wisconsin is 12th nationally on KenPom and is playing really good basketball, having won five of its last six games. The Badgers also won the only regular season matchup against the Scarlet Knights in December.
However, Wisconsin (like Maryland) has also shown some upset potential. The Badgers dropped games to Indiana, Minnesota, and Western Kentucky so far this season (all are outside the top 40 on KenPom) and nearly dropped games to teams like Northwestern and Ohio State as well.
More simply put, a game against Wisconsin is one that Rutgers could win. The key would be finding a way to slow down Ethan Happ. However, this would be a pretty substantial upset on paper. Moreover, it’s worth mentioning that this is where the fatigue would likely start to factor in for the Scarlet Knights. This would theoretically be the team’s third game in three days and Wisconsin would have fresh legs.
After that, Rutgers would likely be looking at Michigan State in the semi-finals and then either Michigan or Purdue in a potential championship game. Those three teams are all ranked above Maryland and Wisconsin on KenPom, so things would be getting even tougher at that point.
There’s no denying that Rutgers has an uphill slate ahead of it heading into the Big Ten Tournament. It’s an underdog in its first game on Wednesday and would be a substantial underdog for potential matchups on Thursday and Friday as well. As such, it’s pretty hard seeing Rutgers getting past Friday in Chicago.
But with that said, Rutgers has shown it’s capable of surprises this season. Its defense can keep it in games and if Baker can heat up, watch out. Rutgers also has a really deep bench (26th nationally in bench minutes), so it could be built better for a Big Ten Tournament run than it looks on first glance.
All told, Rutgers is setup for an interesting week in Chicago. Can the Scarlet Knights surprise those around the league and make a run? We will see.