PISCATAWAY, NJ - JANUARY 09: Geo Baker #0 of the Rutgers Scarlet Knights reacts after scoring the game winning three-point basket defeating the Ohio State Buckeyes 64-61 in a game at Rutgers Athletic Center on January 9, 2019 in Piscataway, New Jersey.
(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Rutgers basketball’s unexpected surge under Steve Pikiell has the Scarlet Knights poised for a trip to the Big Dance.

After a difficult three decades for Rutgers basketball fans, they can finally breathe a sigh of relief. A nail-biting, overtime victory on the road against Purdue on Saturday will likely be the final push needed for Rutgers to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991. This win came off an 11-point statement victory against No. 9 ranked Maryland. 

While it is only a two-game sample size, the Scarlet Knights are rolling into March. The team has really begun to gel and find their stride (shooting 16-for-34 from deep over the span) which will be needed going forward. This mini-run from Rutgers has likely put them over the edge placing them firmly in the Big Dance. Here is a look into this historic squad out of Piscataway:

NCAA Tournament Resumé:

Record: 20-11 (11-9 Big Ten)
NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool): 32
Quad 1/2 Record: 9-10
Worst Losses: St. Bonaventure (neutral site) (120), at Pittsburgh (111)
Best Victories: vs. Seton Hall (16), vs. Maryland (19), vs. Wisconsin (25), at Purdue (33), vs. Purdue (33), vs Penn State (35), vs Illinois (38)

Rutgers has likely done enough to punch a ticket. With a 20-11 (11-9 B1G record), Rutgers has put together a relatively strong tournament resumé. The Big Ten has been seen as the toughest conference in basketball this year. In it, Rutgers has been one of the most competitive teams, finishing tied for fifth. This alone is impressive as the Big Ten is projected to send about 10 teams to the big dance.

Moreover, Rutgers has notched many impressive victories this season. Posting an 18-1 home record, the Scarlet Knights have been almost unbeatable at home. Four of those victories were double-digit wins over AP top 25 teams (Seton Hall, Maryland, Penn State, and Illinois). Rutgers also holds victories over two of the three Big ten champions (Maryland and Wisconsin).

However, the one blemish on the resume for Rutgers was their inability to win outside of the RAC. Prior to Saturday, Rutgers had only one victory away from home (at Nebraska) which did not hold much weight. This quickly changed as Rutgers went into West Lafayette, IN and pulled out an overtime win against Purdue. This win silenced any criticism against Rutgers making the tournament.

The final thing Rutgers has going for them is their lack of very bad losses. While they do possess one quad three loss to St. Bonaventure, the Scarlet Knights have yet to be blown out. Rutgers’ biggest loss is at Michigan State by 12. This demonstrates that the team is highly competitive in nearly every game they play, which will be entertaining for viewers in March.

Team Basketball:

With the common institution of a halfcourt weave offense—which often leads to backdoor alley-oops—Rutgers prides itself on team basketball. It is often that a viewer will see multiple passes before a shot is hoisted. And rarely are shots put up at the beginning of the shot clock, barring fastbreak attempts.

Rutgers has used this unselfish play to feature seven different leading scorers this season. Additionally, no player averages more than thirteen points or thirty minutes on the team per ESPN stats. It’s no surprise that the Scarlet Knights go deep with a nine-man rotation, six of whom average seven or more points.

However, the team basketball that Rutgers uses does not only apply to scoring. Rutgers is a team predicated on defense and rebounding. The team averages 40.2 rebounds a game and only surrenders 62.6 points a game. This has helped the Scarlet Knights become the sixth-ranked defense, according to Kenpom, in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency. Defense tends to travel in March.

Geo Baker:

While team basketball is definitely a plus, it is always helpful to have one player you can fall back on when times are tough.

Geo Baker leads the Scarlet Knights in both assists (3.5) and steals (1.1) per game. He is also their second-leading scorer, but volume scoring is not his calling. Baker is famous for having that clutch gene. Brad Underwood, Illinois basketball coach, called Baker “the best closer in college basketball,” per NJ.com.

Baker has earned this praise. He has put the team on his back several times this year, hitting countless key shots in the closing minutes of games. To begin, he hit a game-winning three-pointer against Nebraska at home this season. Furthermore, he led Rutgers on an 18-point comeback against Northwestern where he scored 23 out of his 25 points in the second half and overtime.

Finally, in the last and biggest game of the season, Baker put up 19 points and an overtime game-winner with 10 seconds remaining to send his team, presumably, to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 29 years. Baker has become a common factor for the Scarlet Knights and if he will be able to continue this production into late March, Rutgers could be poised to win their first game in the Big Dance since 1983.

Steve Pikiell:

The final contributor to this majestic run in Piscataway is the coaching staff and specifically Steve Pikiell. Throughout the season, the head coach has reminded his team that they were picked to finish 12th in the Big Ten. Pikiell’s squad has definitely blown that projection out of the water.

Pikiell entered this season coming off a 14-17 year where the Scarlet Knights were deemed the “Most Improved Team” by Sports Illustrated. It seemed very unlikely for Rutgers to be in contention for this award again, but it may very well be possible. Pikiell has helped coach Rutgers to its first 20-win season since the 1982-83 season.

Pikiell is in serious contention for Big Ten Coach of the Year. Not to mention, he was also placed on the Naismith Coach of the Year Watch List earlier in the season. The job Pikiell is doing for Rutgers and the state of New Jersey is incredible.

The Scarlet Knights recorded a program-record of 10 sell-outs this season. The buzz around this team is legit and it will continue to grow with every victory.

High School Student. New York Giants writer. Email: jeevankirkland19@gmail.com