Depending on when you watched this season, you might have had vastly different views of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. The team had one of the more bizarre seasons you’ll ever see, ranging between horrid and elite at various points in the season. It’s rare to see a team load up with terrible losses in non-conference play and real off numerous ranked wins a few months later.
The good news is Rutgers did enough in Big Ten play to earn a spot in the 2022 NCAA Tournament. The team will now prepare to face Notre Dame in the First Four on Wednesday. The winner will land as an 11 seed against Alabama on Friday afternoon.
But what can Rutgers do with the bid? Can the Scarlet Knights make some noise in March Madness? Let’s take a look at the bracket and what to expect.
As a member of the First Four, Rutgers has its work cut out. Unlike 60 of the 68 teams in the field, Rutgers won’t get a full five or six days to relish in its accomplishments. The Scarlet Knights will have to jump right into the deep end, tipping off on Wednesday night against Notre Dame.
And the matchup itself won’t be easy.
While many in the media have panned the Irish and their postseason hopes, Notre Dame is more than capable of beating Rutgers and doing some damage after that. The Irish are ranked 52nd on KenPom, which is 22 spots higher than Rutgers, and have wins over six top 100 teams, including really solid Kentucky and North Carolina squads. Many of the team’s losses have also been competitive, with 8 of the team’s 10 losses coming by single-digits.
If Rutgers is going to get by Notre Dame, it’s going to take a team effort. The Scarlet Knights will have their work cut out to slow down a dynamic Irish offense, ranking 29th nationally. The key will be limiting opportunities from three, where Notre Dame relies extensively. Keep an eye on freshman Blake Wesley, who dominates the team’s offensive usage. Rutgers will likely look to Caleb McConnell to try and slow him down. It should be a great battle.
If They Advance
Should Rutgers beat Notre Dame, it would then advance to the Round of 64, where it would face off against Alabama on Friday afternoon. The Crimson Tide were basically the inverse of Rutgers this season, starting off hot and fading over the course of the year. In fact, Alabama enters the NCAA Tournament having lost three straight and four of its last six games. It’s literally been more than a month since Alabama beat anyone of note.
The tricky part about Alabama is the team’s sky-high potential. When the Tide are playing well, they’re almost unbeatable. The team has a dynamic offense that can go off on any given night, led by do-it-all guard Jahvon Quinerly. Jaden Shackelford has also been a game changer for the Tide. When the two play well, everything moves. Those hot and cold qualities are the reason why a team that’s just 19-13 overall has wins over five top 20 KenPom teams, including victories over one seeds Gonzaga and Baylor.
After that, Rutgers would be looking at Texas Tech or Montana State over the weekend. The Red Raiders are obviously the opponent that looks more challenging. Texas Tech no longer has Chris Beard on the sideline, but remains one of the better teams in the country. The team’s defense is particularly impressive, ranking first nationally on KenPom. In a lot of ways, Texas Tech is simply a better Rutgers, relying on defense and a slow tempo. Scarlet Knight fans will certainly be hoping for a Montana State upset.
Should Rutgers win all three games and advance to the Sweet 16, it would be looking at a matchup against Duke, Michigan State, or Davidson. Scarlet Knight fans are obviously familiar with the Spartans and all three would pose a serious challenge. Duke has a plethora of talent and Davidson is one of the best coached mid-majors out there, relying on a dynamic offense that can shoot the lights out.
If the Scarlet Knights were fortunate enough to move on from there, they would be looking at a matchup against someone like Gonzaga, Arkansas, or UConn. And a potential Final Four game would come against someone like Baylor or Kentucky. Arizona and Kansas would be the favorites for potential national championship opponents.
Anytime you’re a First Four team, expectations for the Tournament aren’t going to be exceptionally high. Even if you like a team in Rutgers’ position, you’re talking about a challenging matchup on Wednesday, a quick turnaround with travel for a game on Friday, and then another tough game on Sunday to even get past the first weekend. And that doesn’t even mention that First Four teams are generally underdogs when they get to the Round of 64. It’s just not a situation where you can realistically expect a ton.
With that said, Rutgers is only a one-point underdog against Notre Dame and could very well beat Alabama after that. The Tide are great when they’re great, but they’re equally bad when bad. And any reasonable evaluation shows Bama has been trending poorly. Perhaps Rutgers could catch the Tide at the right time.
It’s also worth mentioning that a multitude of First Four teams have found their way past the Round of 64 since the field expanded to 68 teams. After all, just look at UCLA last year. The Bruins were universally panned coming into the postseason and landing in the First Four. Nonetheless, UCLA turned that into a Final Four bid and a program renaissance. Whether Rutgers can repeat that remains to be seen, but a path is there. We’ll have to wait and see if the Scarlet Knights can get it done.