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Rutgers Basketball Is Just Trying To Finish Above .500

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The Scarlet Knights’ Charmin-Soft Non-Conference Schedule

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

New Jersey sportswriter Jerry Carino has pieced together the non-conference schedule that Steve Pikiell and the Rutgers athletic department have put together for the 2019-20 basketball season. Click on the article for full details, but here’s the summary:

  • One home game against an in-state power conference rival
  • One home game against a decent smaller in-state school
  • One road game as part of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge
  • One neutral-site game against an Atlantic 10 opponent in Canada
  • Six, yes six, home games against teams likely to be ranked in the 200+ range next season
  • One home game against a Division II opponent

Zero scheduled road games (Rutgers doesn’t control the Big Ten-ACC Challenge scheduling). Zero power conference opponents other than the in-state rivalry game with Seton Hall. Not even one of the mediocre Feast Week neutral-site tournaments. Thank God for the two December Big Ten games, lest Rutgers basketball fans decide to go into hibernation until after the new year.

College basketball scheduling is fascinating. Unlike football, contracts are not done years in advance, so the way that a school builds its basketball schedule tells you a lot about what to expect in the coming year.

There are six kinds of games that can be scheduled:

  • Conference games. A school has zero control over these.
  • Conference challenge games. A school has next-to-zero control over these. I suppose if a school wanted to beg out of the Gavitt Games in a particular year, the Big Ten Powers That Be might find a way to make it happen... but the Big Ten-ACC Challenge is set by ESPN, and every school has to participate.
  • Exempt tournament games. Think of Maui and the Battle for Atlantis. Schools have to be invited to these. There’s no doubt some back-office politicking going on between the event organizers, TV networks, and athletic departments, but if you’re Rutgers and you’re not a big draw, you aren’t going to be invited to Maui when they can take Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue, or Ohio State instead. Still, you’d have to think that of all the early-season tournaments next season, Rutgers could have found one better than the Naismith Classic in Toronto.
  • Home-and-homes. Simple enough. Two schools agree to play on one home court in one year, then the other home court the next year. These games happen between in-state rivals or schools who view each other as roughly equivalent peers. Rutgers is at least smart enough to have a H&H with Seton Hal, but that’s the only one on the schedule; other power conference schools don’t want to signal that they’re Rutgers-level programs, and Rutgers doesn’t want to schedule anything with a non-power conference school.
  • Two-for-ones. This is the same thing as a home-and-home, but the school with more clout gets two home games instead of one. I don’t see any of these on Rutgers’ schedule.
  • Buy games. “You come to our place and probably take an L, and we’ll pay you enough to make it worth your while.” This is the bulk of the Scarlet Knights’ schedule. It’s unclear whether the quality of the buy games is an indicator of fear or of thrift. (Crappy programs will come play for less money.) It’s probably a little bit of both.

Now, it’s possible that Steve Pikiell picked up the phone and called the likes of a Virginia Tech or an Iowa State or a Washington and tried to schedule a home-and-home. It’s possible he picked up the phone and called some quality mid-major programs to come play at the RAC, and they turned him down because they got a better offer from other schools with deeper pockets. But I kind of doubt it.

If you’re trying to make the NCAA Tournament, you have to schedule like you’re trying to make the NCAA Tournament. A bad schedule can cost you a berth and can cost a coach his job. It happened to Tim Miles. It may yet happen to Pat Chambers. It’s even within the realm of possibility that it could happen to Mark Turgeon if they have a few bad bounces in Big Ten play. (Fran McCaffery did step up to the plate with a big-boy non-conference schedule this coming year.)

On the other hand, if you’re going to be bad, you schedule easy opponents to keep the fans off your back and keep your players’ confidence up. It doesn’t help you prepare for the Big Ten season, but if you’re going to miss the postseason anyway, in five years it will look better for people to look back and see an 18-14 record than a 14-18 one. Look at the schedule that Fred Hoiberg put together for his first season at Nebraska. A win is a win this coming season in Lincoln.

And, much as we’ve read about how the Scarlet Knights have improved under Steve Pikiell over the past three seasons, that’s going to be the case in Piscataway this year, too. The Scarlet Knights haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991. A schedule like this tells you that they don’t think 2020 is going to be the year that streak gets broken.

But there’s another streak that could get broken—Rutgers hasn’t finished above .500 since 2006. With this non-conference schedule, anything worse than 9-2 will be a disaster. With a 9-2 record, Rutgers could go 7-13 in the Big Ten—which feels about like what you’d expect them to do—and still make it to 16-15 going into the Big Ten Tournament.

Incremental improvement. That’s what we’ve seen every year at Rutgers since Pikiell replaced Eddie Jordan. It looks like 2020 will be more of the same. Rutgers isn’t going to make an out-of-nowhere leap into the NCAA Tournament with this schedule as the base of a resume. Perhaps future schedules will be more ambitious.

Honestly, it’s something of a chicken-and-egg problem. You could say that nobody wants to play Rutgers until they get halfway good, but you can’t get halfway good playing nobodies. Or you could say they laid an egg with this year’s schedule because they’re chicken.

I’ll tune in for Seton Hall and Pitt. As for the rest, just please avoid any embarrassing losses, OK?