Rutgers squeaked into the NCAA Tournament after a wild regular season, but they have what it takes for a deep run into March.
The beginning of the season was rough for Rutgers. Consecutive losses to DePaul, Lafayette, and UMass put the Scarlet Knights in a desperate position. One season after making the NCAA Tournament and nearly making the Sweet 16, Rutgers looked like they would have trouble qualifying for the NIT.
However, Steve Pikiell and his experienced roster flipped the switch in Big Ten play, finishing fourth in the conference and racking up five wins against ranked opponents. In the end, a strong showing in the conference outweighed the abysmal non-conference resumé.
But that’s the thing about Rutgers — this doesn’t have to be the end.
Sneaking into the NCAA Tournament as one of the last at-large teams doesn’t need to be the top accomplishment for the Scarlet Knights. They are fully capable of making a run and forcing the rest of the country to take notice.
Even after winning a game in last year’s NCAA Tournament, it wasn’t enough to make people take notice. Look at the disrespect that the Scarlet Knights are enduring in the lead-up to their Wednesday night matchup with Notre Dame.
Harper: "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think we made the tournament last year."
Baker: "I don't remember the question."
— Jerry Carino (@NJHoopsHaven) March 15, 2022
For anyone who forgot (or doesn’t believe) that Rutgers won in the Round of 64 last year, here’s a nice, long highlight to bring everyone up to speed. It was the first NCAA Tournament win for the program since 1983.
The Scarlet Knights nearly beat Final Four-bound Houston in the Round of 32. If they had a few more balls bounce their way, they would have reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1976. For the most part, the roster is the same as it was last year.
Obviously, that’s a case of “shoulda, coulda, woulda” but the point is that Rutgers is capable of beating anyone at any time.
They lost a few players from last year’s team, but Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker are still the two guys who make this team go. Cliff Omoruyi has stepped in nicely after Myles Johnson transferred to UCLA. Not to mention, Caleb McConnell might be the best perimeter defender in the country.
In short, Pikiell’s team has the talent and experience to make some noise in March. Don’t be swayed by the fact that they are playing in the First Four. These games have actually served as a springboard for teams in the past.
First Four Success
The First Four might seem like a burden — which it is to the extent that it requires teams to win a game to make the Round of 64 — but it can be a blessing in disguise. UCLA went all the way to the Final Four as a First Four team in 2021.
In fact, they were the second First Four team to accomplish that feat, matching VCU from 2011. Out of the First Four at-large teams, nine of 20 advanced to the Round of 32, five have gone to the Sweet 16, and two all the way to the Final Four.
It’s not ideal, but the First Four games are not a death sentence for March Madness hopes. Rutgers has the experience and talent to beat anyone in the country.
If they are going to go on a deep run, it starts on Wednesday against Notre Dame.