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The case for Rutgers to make the NCAA Tournament



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

To dance or no dance, that is the question?

For a third straight year, Rutgers men’s basketball will watch Selection Sunday for a legitimate reason. Let’s first remember that no matter what happens on this particular Sunday, there was a three decade period where watching the brackets announced was done so with zero hope of hearing Rutgers’ name called.

Last year, the Scarlet Knights made history in making the NCAA Tournament with the worst NET ranking ever at No. 77.

This year, RU arguably has the most confounding resume of any bubble team under consideration.

Just look at this chart that Mike Broadbent of The Knight Report made.

Rutgers has the best KenPom ranking of any true bubble team at No. 35. Their NET ranking is now No. 40 but still second best. Their predictive metrics are very high as well. So what’s the concern?

For a second straight year, Rutgers has some bad losses and their non-conference schedule is an issue. Their Strength of Record of 59 is the worst of any projected team into the field. As acclaimed bracketologist Brad Wachtel noted, the lowest SOR of any team to receive an at-large bid last season was Wyoming at 53. Also RU’s non-conference schedule is sub-300 again. For a full update from Brad since his podcast appearance last week, click here for my Q&A with him for Selection Sunday.

While Rutgers blew out every Quad 4 opponent, they do have four Quad 3 losses. No other team projected to make the Field of 68 has more than two. These quads are fluid throughout the season.

Seton Hall was a Quad 2 loss before they stunningly loss to DePaul in the first round of the Big East Tournament this week. Nebraska is another but the reality is they’ve played well down the stretch, regardless of classification. If you step from outside the Quad 3 classification, the reality is the Hall went 10-10 in the Big East while Nebraska went 9-11 in the Big Ten.

Temple beat No. 1 Houston this season and Rutgers lost to them without Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy. The committee is supposed to note that in consideration. The real stinker is the recent loss to Minnesota. In fact, if RU had closed out that 10 point lead with 1:15 to play, the case for Rutgers would not even be a task needed. a true bad loss, no doubt.

So why does Rutgers deserve to make the NCAA Tournament?

As mentioned, almost all of their metrics are at the top or near the top of all bubble teams. They have top 40 rankings with ESPN BPI (26), KenPom (35), Bart Torvik’s T-Rank (36), Saragin (39) and NET (40).

Another major plus is having seven wins against the projected field. Per NJ Bracketology, only 15 teams projected in the field have more than seven while only another three teams have the same amount. That makes Rutgers a top 20 team in regard to wins against the field. Of bubble teams projected in the field by a majority of bracketologists, only Penn State has more with no other having more than five.

In fact, Penn State has earned five straight wins against the field in the last two weeks since Rutgers came from 19 points down to stun them in Happy Valley. Having swept arguably the hottest team heading into the NCAA Tournament, including a road win with without Mawot Mag, is impressive. More on that in a moment.

Rutgers is one of 30 teams to have at least five Q1 wins. They fell just short of a sixth with Michigan State falling to No. 33 after Friday’s loss to Ohio State. The Rutgers win against MSU at Madison Square Garden was initially considered a Q1 opportunity before the NCAA changed the classification to a home game.

They also are one of 35 teams projected into the field or on the bubble that have double digit wins and at least a .500 record against Quad 1 & 2 opponents combined at 10-10. Look at the teams that do not fall in that category from either the bubble or as projected to make the field. Note I didn’t include Big XII teams because that league is the best in college basketball by a wide margin:

Maryland 9-12

Illinois 9-12

Providence 7-10

Auburn 9-11

Arkansas 8-12

Mississippi State 8-11

NC State 8-10

North Carolina 7-13

Pittsburgh 7-9

Oregon 9-13

Arizona State 9-11

One last thing to consider with Q1/Q2 records is the controversial loss at Ohio State in December. I reported this week that the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee will take into account that the Big Ten issued a statement that the winning shot against Rutgers should not have counted. Had that shot not counted, Rutgers would have one more Quad 1 win and a better than .500 record against Q1/Q2 opponents.

The best thing on Rutgers’ resume is their road win at Purdue. No bubble team has close to that good of a victory on their resume. Actually most teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament don’t have as good of a win to showcase.

Rutgers also has impressive road wins at Northwestern and at Penn State. At home, they beat Indiana, Maryland and Penn State by double digits.

The variable that is hardest to predict is how the committee will weigh Rutgers 3-7 record without starting forward Mawot Mag. The committee said this week there is no recency bias in evaluating teams. The last ten game metric that CBS shows on the screen is not a relevant factor anymore. Every game is supposed to weight the same in regard to resume. However, injuries are taken into account. That means the loss to Temple without two starts should be acknowledged. It also means a win at Wisconsin with Mag and McConnell should be as well. On the flip side, Rutgers unfortunately showed for a large part of the last month that they weren’t playing like the same team since Mag’s injury.

That being said, the way that Rutgers performed at the Big Ten Tournament proved that this team is evolving for the better post-Mag. Head coach Steve Pikiell made legitimate lineup adjustments that sparked his team. A Quad 2 double digit win on a neutral court against bubble team Michigan was important. However, I’d argue playing Purdue to the wire in a 5 point loss was a strong closing statement made by Rutgers.

The Boilermakers are likely going to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Being so competitive against them was a massive result in my opinion. Despite a poor record without Mag, RU showed they’re figuring it out in playing them so close. It also proved their best win was no fluke.

Purdue head coach Matt Painter was sold on the Scarlet Knights. He said after the game, “They’re obviously an NCAA Tournament team, and I think they could do some real damage.”

As for Rutgers, they were asked about whether their performance at the Big Ten Tournament proved they deserved an NCAA Tournament bid after the loss to Purdue.

“Oh, yeah, 100 percent,” said Paul Mulcahy.

“Of course. We don’t take the backseat to nobody,” said Caleb McConnell. “I feel like March Madness deserves to see us play in it, and I feel like that’s what they’ll get.”

Head coach Steve Pikiell laid it out in more detail.

“I think we’ve played good really all year long. We’ve got 19 wins in the best league in the country, most competitive league from top to bottom. I know everyone speculates on — Nebraska could have beat anybody. Ohio State is still here. This league is unbelievable. We did a lot of good things throughout the whole year, and I think today just showed you we can play with anybody.

He added, “We’ll see coming up here. These guys certainly deserve it. We were one of the best defenses in the country, period. I wouldn’t want to play us, that’s for sure. Just told them we can play anybody. We’re going to get that chance, and we’ll see what happens.”

Rutgers doesn’t have a perfect resume. The Minnesota loss is likely the only thing keeping them from lock status. It might be the biggest reason that Rutgers ends up playing in the First Four in Dayton for a second straight season. At the end of the day, making the NCAA Tournament is all that matters. Once you are there, taking advantage of that opportunity is the key. Rutgers deserves the chance to do just that.

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