The Rutgers Scarlet Knights were a solid lock to end their NCAA tournament drought dating back to 1991 last season, and then COVID-19 happened. The team returned the key pieces of its breakout roster from last season, but then proceeded to struggle down the stretch this year. As a result, the team looks to be in the NCAA yet again, but is the seven seed in this week’s Big Ten Tournament.
But can the Scarlet Knights surprise in Indy? Let’s take a look.
As the seven seed, Rutgers has the first evening game on Thursday in Big Ten Tournament play against Indiana. While not as terrible as a Wednesday game, and there are some rest advantages provided by having the earlier game of the day over the course of the tournament, the path to Sunday’s title is still a four game slog.
_________ will be cutting down the nets Sunday? pic.twitter.com/umsMb9qEoV— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 8, 2021
Still, the opening matchup proves a difficult but manageable task for RU. The Scarlet Knights downed Indiana twice during the regular season. In both games, the Scarlet Knights scored 74 points, but Indiana managed a far more competitive four point loss on its home court versus am 11-point loss on the road a month later. Still, winning against the same opponent three times can be a challenge.
To do so will require a solid performance the likes of which RU has now delivered twice. In game one against the Hoosiers, RU held Trayce Jackson-Davis to just 14 points. Then in the second game, RU shut down the rest of the IU roster while Jackson-Davis and Aljami Durham both scored 20+ with no other Hoosier hitting double figures.
To keep the winning streak alive for Rutgers over Indiana this season, the team needs to keep up the defensive pressure and continue making the shots they did the first two games around this season. Trying to cut down on the fouls Indiana has a tendency to draw (the Hoosiers shot around 18 attempts each in both matchups) would also help.
-If They Advance
Should Rutgers beat Indiana on Thursday, the Scarlet Knights would then move on to face Illinois on Friday. This would be a difficult task for RU, but the Scarlet Knights did give Illinois a loss back in December in a 91-88 win in Piscataway. In that game, five Fighting Illini managed double figures, included 22 for Ayo Dosunmu. Despite that high scoring outing by Illinois, Rutgers still managed to get the impressive upset and so could have the confidence to do so again.
A Saturday game is likely going against Iowa, but could be Wisconsin as well. Neither matchup is ideal for the Scarlet Knights as Iowa has an offensive firepower that RU has often lacked this season. Though having said that, the Scarlet Knights did fall by just two points on their home court on Jan. 2 to Iowa, so there is certainly hope there for a neutral court matchup.
Wisconsin can grind out the win in its typical slow moving, grind it out style with just enough offense to answer anything RU can give. However, if Rutgers somehow finds a way to get the win Saturday afternoon, it will likely face Michigan in the title game Sunday.
With Eli Brooks unlikely to make a return to the court following an ankle injury against the Spartans this past Sunday, this will be a different Wolverines squad than what Rutgers faced earlier in the season in a 71-64 road loss. However, RU will still need to find an answer for how to score on a tough Michigan defense while preventing a number of Wolverines from doing the same on Michigan’s offense. A competitive outing in Ann Arbor should help provide the blueprint for that exact upset, though.
In the unlikely chance Purdue or another team gets the upset path to Sunday, a Boilermaker matchup could be ideal. Rutgers downed Purdue once this season already in an 81-76 win, so the confidence can be there to do so a second time on a neutral court.
Rutgers marching through to the title on Sunday will be a difficult path. It will also be the program’s first conference tournament championship since 1989. However, regardless of a conference tournament title or not, Rutgers will be playing in the NCAA tournament next week as well. That is a long overdue event for the Scarlet Knight faithful to enjoy in the meantime, regardless.