There's never been a time in our lives that the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have been relevant as a men's college basketball program. New Jersey's largest educational institution hasn't fielded a team that qualified for the NCAA Men's tournament in nearly thirty years. The last Rutgers player to be drafted in the NBA was Hamady N'Diaye 10 years ago.
Historically, New Jersey Online Sports Betting oddsmakers have routinely picked the Scarlet Knights to finish at the bottom of the conference standings. Which makes this 2019-20 campaign by head coach Steve Pikiell all the more astonishing.
Let's check on just how good the Scarlet Knights have been this season. They are currently 18-8, with a 9-6 record in the ultra-competitive Big Ten, a conference many believe will send 11 teams to the Big Dance. Rutgers sits ahead of teams like Michigan State, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin in the conference standings. They hold wins over Wisconsin, Penn State (another Big Ten squad having historic success this season), and current Big East leader and New Jersey rival Seton Hall.
In this topsy-turvy college hoops season, records can be deceiving, so let's dig a little deeper and check on the metrics at KenPom. Rutgers ranks 29th in KenPom, 69th in offensive efficiency and an impressive 11th in defensive efficiency. The Scarlet Knights are 7-6 against KenPom top 50 teams and will have an opportunity to improve that number with a tough stretch run of Michigan (14), at Wisconsin (28), at Penn State (11), Maryland (8), and at Purdue (26). For anyone questioning the legitimacy of Rutgers, that final five-game stretch will go a long way towards clarifying its standing.
So, how exactly has Rutgers managed to get itself in this position? It all starts with defense. The Scarlet Knights rank 16th in the nation with a measly 61.7 points per game allowed. They rank 9th in opponent's two-point percentage, 23rd in opponent's effective field goal percentage and 15th in block percentage, led by Myles Johnson and his 1.6 blocks per game. Adding a final boost is the fact that they generally defend without fouling.
As good as Rutgers has been defensively, you still need to put the ball in the basket to win games, and for that Rutgers relies first on Ron Harper Jr. Yes, he is the son of Ron Harper the 16-year NBA player. The former leads Rutgers with 11.8 points per game, pacing a balanced attack for the Scarlet Knights in which seven players average at least seven points per game.
Head coach Steve Pikiell merits mention as well. Before joining Rutgers, Pikiell led Stony Brook to its first winning season as a Division 1 program in 2008-09 and its first NCAA Tournament berth in 2015-16. Now, he's working on making history at Rutgers.
In addition to not being in the NCAA Tournament since 1991, the program hasn't participated in any postseason play since 2006, which is also the last season in which it even posted a winning record. Equally as impressive is the turnaround in Big Ten play. Over their first five seasons in the conference, Rutgers averaged three conference wins per season. Three. The high-water mark was seven, last season. This year, it already has nine with five games to play. The program has already secured its first winning season in 14 years and its best Big Ten showing since joining the conference and has the opportunity for more.
The legitimacy of this season is yet to be determined as the Scarlet Knights have much to prove over a tough five-game run to end the season, in the Big Ten tournament, and, presumably, in the NCAA Tournament. Down the road, the true importance of the season will be judged by whether it proves to be a building block for the program or just a one-off run of success. Still, it's impossible to ignore what Pikiell, Harper Jr., and the Scarlet Knights have accomplished this season. They are nationally relevant and have been one of the best stories in college basketball. They will be a team no one is eager to face come March, and considering the program's history, that's mighty impressive.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.