It hasn’t been perfect, but there’s no debating that this has been a historic season for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and one thoroughly enjoyed by fans. For the first time since 1991, fans will get to hear “Rutgers” announced on Selection Sunday. The team solidified its NCAA Tournament bid last week with wins over Maryland and Rutgers.
The question now is whether the team can build on that momentum in this year’s Big Ten Tournament? Let’s take a look.
As the eight seed, Rutgers will open things up on Thursday against Michigan in the earliest game of the day. It will give the Scarlet Knights an opportunity to avenge two losses to the Wolverines earlier this season.
The B1G tourney field is set. pic.twitter.com/pV0b4p0nxl— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 9, 2020
On paper, Rutgers will enter this game as an underdog. The Wolverines are better than the Scarlet Knights from a statistical perspective and won both of the regular season meetings between the two teams. Michigan just seems to be a tough matchup for Rutgers this season, likely due to the team’s tremendous length.
But the game is expected to be close, with KenPom giving Michigan just a 56 percent chance to come out on top. The game will likely come down to the offensive boards. If the Scarlet Knights can really pound Michigan there, a win is on the table. Rutgers also needs better perimeter play than it got in the earlier meetings between the teams.
-If They Advance
Should Rutgers make it past Michigan, it would then face off against the Big Ten Tournament’s top seeded Wisconsin Badgers. The teams split the regular season series with Rutgers winning in Piscataway and Wisconsin winning in Madison. Unfortunately for Rutgers fans, the Badgers have looked almost unbeatable over the last month or so of conference play. Wisconsin enters the postseason having won eight straight and nine of the team’s last 10 games.
However, there are some legitimate reasons for hope about Rutgers’ chances against the Badgers. To start, the team’s overall profiles are pretty similar. Rutgers ranks just five spots behind Wisconsin on KenPom and a single game behind in the win column. It might seem odd to say about teams seeded seven spots apart, but their overall profiles are similar.
Additionally, Rutgers would also have the benefit of confidence and comfort against the Badgers, having played (and won) the day before. Wisconsin will be coming into its Friday game ice cold after being off since Saturday. Playing back-to-back games will eventually wear you out, but it takes more than two games to do it. If Rutgers can hit the ground running and get Wisconsin down, perhaps they can sneak out the upset. With those factors in mind, it’s not too difficult to see Rutgers making it to Saturday this week.
After that, Rutgers would likely be looking at a game against Illinois or Iowa on Saturday, though Minnesota is my dark horse to make a run this year. Interestingly, Rutgers is just narrowly behind Iowa and is actually ahead of Illinois on KenPom. As such, it’s hard to say the Scarlet Knights wouldn’t have a chance there. A championship game would likely come against Maryland or Michigan State. Obviously, either of those opponents would be a tremendous challenge.
After last week’s wins over Maryland and Purdue, most are projecting the Scarlet Knights to make the NCAA Tournament, and to do so rather comfortably. As such, the main goal for Rutgers this week (other than winning the Big Ten Tournament) will be improving its seeding for Selection Sunday. TRank currently projects Rutgers as an eight seed in the NCAA Tournament, but many have the team a bit lower. Winning a few extra games would secure that position and help Rutgers avoid a seeding range (7-10) where the team might have to face a top seed in the first weekend.
Given how Rutgers has performed in recent years, it’s hard to imagine fans being disappointed even if things don’t go well in Indy. However, there is a path to a decent run if the team can beat Michigan on Thursday. We’ll have to see if the team can get it done.