Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Roller Coaster Ride of a Season: A Season Recap and the End of an Era

(photo courtesy of Rutgers Athletics)

The 2021-22 Rutgers men's basketball team provided its fans with a roller coaster ride of a season for the ages!

RHI provides a complete recap and breakdown of the 2021-22 Rutgers men's basketball season

When the final buzzer sounded last Tuesday evening in Dayton OH, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights' 2021-22 season had come to a screeching halt. Rutgers battled for over three hours with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in a double-overtime thriller, which has been regarded as one of the best games of the 2022 NCAA Tournament and dubbed an instant "classic". In the end, Rutgers lost 89-87 in heartbreaking fashion. So many times this season, Rutgers has had games decided by the last possession, and unfortunately, Notre Dame scored the go-ahead bucket to win the game with 1.9 seconds left in the second overtime. Both teams played with passion, heart, and grit. It was as fun of a college basketball game as you will ever see. It was also the last time Rutgers fans would see Geo Baker play in a Scarlet Knights uniform, and likely to be the last time fans would see Ron Harper Jr. and Caleb McConnell in a Scarlet Knights uniform as well.

The Regular Season

Before the 2021-22 college basketball season tipped off for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Coach Steve Pikiell was interviewed by various media outlets, and he said that this was his "best team" that he has ever had. Almost immediately, he put his team on notice and expectations were high across the fan base. Rutgers was returning most of its experienced players and had several new faces on the bench. Rutgers' core, consisting of Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., and Caleb McConnell, were each expected to have big seasons and to lead the Scarlet Knights to somewhat of a steady journey through the regular season to the postseason.

With one of the weaker non-conference schedules in the country (overall rated 297 by the NET Rankings), Rutgers fans expected the Scarlet Knights to plow through most of their opponents and to enter the Big Ten regular season with a good overall record. However, the Scarlet Knights immediately got off to shaky ground and needed overtime to surpass the Patriot League's Lehigh Mountain Hawks (13-19; 10-8) in their first game of the season. The slow start to the season continued for the Scarlet Knights as they struggled but eventually were able to put away the Northeast Conference's Merrimack Warriors (14-16; 10-8) and New Jersey foe NJIT Highlanders (11-18; 6-12) [of the Atlantic East]. Despite a 3-0 start, fans and analysts across college basketball were scratching their heads and were wondering what was going on with the Scarlet Knights? After all, this team was returning its core players with lots of experience. The Scarlet Knights should not be struggling to defeat Lehigh, Merrimack, and NJIT. Slow starts and sloppy play for the Scarlet Knights against their first three opponents had fans worried that maybe this was not Coach Pikiell's best team, and could be an indication that the Scarlet Knights could lose to an opponent they should beat.

The worst case scenario actually unfolded in Rutgers' next three games. Rutgers lost on the road to the DePaul Blue Demons (15-16; 6-14) in the Gavitt Tipoff Games. In what may be considered one of the worst losses of the Steve Pikiell era, the Scarlet Knights lost to the Lafayette Leopards (10-20; 7-11) at The RAC in front of a sold-out crowd. To add insult to injury, the Scarlet Knights blew a 17 point lead on the road and lost to the Massachusetts Minutemen (15-17; 7-11). After losing three games in a row to lesser opponents (without Geo Baker), the media, analysts, and fans started writing off Rutgers and believed this to be a truly lost season for the Scarlet Knights. Rutgers' NET ranking plummeted to #217, and many felt there was almost no way for Rutgers to get out of such a deep hole. Despite the three losses, Steve Pikiell told the media and the fans, "We'll be fine". No one believed him.

As Rutgers stood 3-3 overall, fans were desperate to see the Scarlet Knights win, and find their way out of a major slump. Rutgers was able to follow-up the three horrific losses with a decisive home victory over the Clemson Tigers (17-16; 8-12) in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. There was still little hope amongst the fan base, but some felt that the win over Clemson helped restore the feeling that the Scarlet Knights could turn their season around. However, Rutgers ran into eventual Big Ten regular season champ the Illinois Fighting Illini (23-10; 15-5) and were blown out by 35 points in Champaign. The media, analysts, and fans officially wrote off the Scarlet Knights in one of their worst showings in conference play in years. 

What happened next, a roller coaster ride no one could have predicted. After the no-show loss to Illinois in early December. Somehow, this Rutgers team was able to string together some wins and build confidence. After losing by 35 points to Illinois, Rutgers responded and silenced critics with an historic upset of the then-ranked #1 Purdue Boilermakers (29-7; 14-6), ruining the Boilermakers' only #1 AP Poll ranking in school history. It was the first time that Rutgers had ever beaten a team ranked #1 in the country. Ron Harper Jr. will forever be remembered by Rutgers fans for his last second near mid-court heave that sent The RAC into a frenzy. (See the video below as called on the radio by Jerry Recco and Austin Johnson.)

After the incredible historic victory over the Boilermakers, Rutgers traveled to Newark to battle the Seton Hall Pirates (21-11; 11-8) in their annual Garden State Hardwood Classic rivalry. Although Rutgers lost, the Scarlet Knights showed toughness and grit, and that there was no quit in this team.

COVID issues followed after the game with Seton Hall, and Rutgers was forced to take a temporary pause. COVID forced Rutgers to cancel their non-conference match with the Rider Broncs (14-19; 8-12), but the Scarlet Knights were able to re-schedule their contests with the Maine Black Bears (6-23; 3-15) and the Central Connecticut State Blue Devils (8-24; 5-13) so they would not be canceled. After the pause, Rutgers resumed play and demolished Maine and Central Connecticut State. Rutgers had looked like a totally different team. The COVID pause may have provided time for the team to reflect and work on things that were troubling the team at the start of the season. The blowout wins over the Black Bears and the Blue Devils were what fans wanted at the start of the season. It appeared as if the Scarlet Knights had turned the corner. The wins against Maine and Central Connecticut State carried over in their next two games as the Scarlet Knights dominated Big Ten foes Michigan Wolverines (19-14; 11-9) and the Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-22; 4-16). Rutgers' win over Michigan was their first ever win in program history against the Wolverines. Surprisingly, Rutgers is 1-14 all-time against Michigan. After the four-game winning streak, Rutgers improved its NET Ranking to #126. But, there was only a glimmer of hope the Scarlet Knights would be dancing in March. In order for the Scarlet Knights to dream about dancing in March, college hoops analysts believed several opportunities lay ahead and Rutgers had to seize them. 

With a four-game winning streak on the line, Rutgers traveled to Happy Valley to take on their rival the Penn State Nittany Lions (14-17; 7-13). Rutgers delivered a head scratching no-show performance and were blown out by Penn State. This was viewed by many as a major opportunity blown by the Scarlet Knights. However, despite to the loss to Penn State, Rutgers responded with emphatic blowout win on the road over the Maryland Terrapins (15-17; 7-13). 

In what may have been one of Rutgers' best defensive performances ever, the Scarlet Knights defeated the Iowa Hawkeyes (26-10; 12-8) and held them to 46 points. The Hawkeyes entered the game with one of the nation's most prolific high up-tempo offenses in college basketball, averaging well over 85 points per game. Rutgers was able to force Iowa to play ugly basketball and held the Hawkeyes to a dismal 27% shooting from the field; 54% shooting from the free-throw line; and 22% shooting from beyond the arc. Rutgers nabbed 7 steals in the game and outrebounded Iowa by 11 boards. Caleb McConnell held Keegan Murray, one of the nation's best players, to 13 points, which was 7 points below his average. The win over Iowa rejuvenated the Rutgers fan base and emotions began to run high again in Piscataway. College basketball analysts took notice of the win and fans began to believe in this team, again. 

With the big win over the Iowa Hawkeyes, Rutgers was in solid position within the Big Ten standings with an 11-6 overall record and 5-2 conference record. The next set of four games were games many analysts felt were very critical for Rutgers and games they could win. This was a true test for Rutgers to see if they can get into the NCAA conversation and stay atop the Big Ten standings. However, things would not go Rutgers' way and they dropped three out of the four contests, including close losses to the Minnesota Golden Gophers (13-17; 4-16) and the Northwestern Wildcats (15-16; 7-13) and a disappointing non-competitive loss at home to the Maryland Terrapins. The Scarlet Knights were able sniff out a close win over the Nebraska Cornhuskers during this four-game stretch. Rutgers was 12-9 overall and 6-5 in the conference. And once again, analysts and disappointed fans began writing off the Scarlet Knights.

Although the Scarlet Knights lost three out of four since their big win over the Hawkeyes, it was attributed to the second half of the game against Northwestern that sparked an improbable run that would soon follow. Even though the Scarlet Knights lost to Northwestern, this team proved they were not done fighting. Coach Pikiell made adjustments defensively and offensively in the second half, which led to success for Rutgers in the game. The Scarlet Knights were able to erase a 24 point deficit to the Wildcats, and force overtime. Ultimately in the end, the Wildcats prevailed with the win but Rutgers learned a lot about themselves after the game. The Scarlet Knights knew what they had to do to win games when the daunting gauntlet approached in February. No one gave Rutgers a fighting chance in February, and many believed Rutgers was left for dead. 

The Michigan State Spartans (23-13; 11-9) were the first opponent on the February gauntlet. The Spartans entered the game ranked 13th in the country. With their backs against the wall, Rutgers knew it was do-or-die and this game was a must-win. The Scarlet Knights delivered an unbelievable performance at The RAC, and the Scarlet Knights throttled Michigan State by 21 points. It was the second year in a row the Scarlet Knights had blasted Michigan State by 20+ points. Rutgers simply applied from they learned in the second half of the Northwestern game in the game against Michigan State, and the Spartans had no answer. Rutgers played great defense and had one of their best shooting nights of the season at 62% for the game. Rutgers hammered Michigan State on the boards, forced 15 turnovers, and grabbed 7 steals. (See the highlights of the game below.)

Riding high off the win against Michigan State, Rutgers next faced the #16 Ohio State Buckeyes (20-12; 12-8). Rutgers has not had much success against Ohio State in recent years, and Chris Holtmann entered the game with a 4-1 record at The RAC. The game was a back-and-forth affair until the Buckeyes stretched their lead to eight with just under four minutes to go. With 3:48 remaining in the game, Geo Baker and Caleb McConnell sparked one of the greatest comebacks in recent memory to help Rutgers pull out a gutsy win. Geo Baker took over the game scoring 8 of the last 10 points for the Scarlet Knights and delivering an assist down-low to big man Cliff Omoruyi. Caleb McConnell also came up with the block of the year by racing down the court and stuffing Ohio State's Malaki Branham. McConnell's block was the key play of the comeback victory. Had Branham made the easy layup, Ohio State could have extended their lead to 6 with 2:30 remaining in the game. McConnell was able to make the block, pass the ball to Paul Mulcahy, who distributed the ball to Geo Baker, who sunk a jumper to bring Rutgers within 2 points. Rutgers played incredible team defense down the stretch and kept the Buckeyes off the scoreboard. The Scarlet Knights were able to pull off the big upset. (Watch the sequence of events below.)

Following the big win over Ohio State, Rutgers made the trek to Madison to take on a hot team in the Wisconsin Badgers (25-8; 15-5). Rutgers had never won at the Kohl Center before, and the Scarlet Knights needed a road victory to get their name in the tournament conversation. In another back-and-forth affair, the Scarlet Knights were able to pull off a stunning upset and keep their tournament hopes alive. Caleb McConnell limited Wisconsin's star player Johnny Davis to 11 points, well under his scoring average of 19 points per game. Four Rutgers players were able to score in double-digits as Ron Harper Jr. led the way with 21 points. 

Rutgers traveled back to Piscataway to host the Illinois Fighting Illini, and this time around fortunes changed. The Scarlet Knights imposed their will on the eventual Big Ten regular season champs, and punched them right in the mouth. The Scarlet Knights avenged the brutal 35 point loss in December by beating the Fighting Illini by 11 points. The Scarlet Knights crushed the Fighting Illini on the boards by 18 and force the Illini to shoot 26 percent from beyond the arc. At one point, the Scarlet Knights led by as many as 23 points. 

Rutgers was back in the tournament discussion after pulling off an historic run by becoming the first unranked team in college basketball history to defeat four ranked teams in a row. Rutgers improved their NET ranking to 74 and were declared the National Team of the Week by ESPN and NCAA's Andy Katz. By mid-February, Rutgers had the best record in the country at 5-1 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25. Rutgers also had the third best record against Quadrant 1 teams in the NET Rankings.

Rutgers was one of the hottest teams in the country, and became a team no one wanted to play. It took a trip to Mackey Arena, one of the toughest atmospheres in all of college basketball, for Rutgers' four-game winning streak to come to an end. Rutgers put up a valiant effort against the Purdue Boilermakers in their second meeting of the season but in the end fell by 12 points. Although Rutgers lost the game, the Scarlet Knights did have one of their more efficient offensive performances of the season.

Rutgers followed the loss at Purdue with a limp performance in Ann Arbor against the Michigan Wolverines who were able to capitalize and pull away from the Scarlet Knights to seal a decisive win. The win for Michigan helped boost their tournament chances while Rutgers was placed squarely on the tournament bubble. A sense of panic started settling in amongst the fan base as Rutgers needed to pick up a couple more marquee wins to secure an NCAA Tournament bid. 

The Wisconsin Badgers traveled to The RAC with revenge on their minds after the Scarlet Knights upset them on their home floor. The Badgers executed their game plan and were able to pull away from Rutgers in the closing seconds of the game. The loss to Wisconsin was just Rutgers third loss at The RAC the entire season. Rutgers was now in the midst of a three-game skid.

Rutgers would now enter the final critical phase of the season where analysts believed the Scarlet Knights had to win their final two games of the regular season if they wanted any shot at dancing in March. Just like the last two previous seasons, Rutgers found themselves in familiar territory with their backs against the wall. The Scarlet Knights had the Indiana Hoosiers (21-14; 9-11) and the Penn State Nittany Lions remaining on the docket. The Scarlet Knights delivered and won with in epic performance at Assembly Hall to knock off the Indiana Hoosiers with another last second heroic shot by Ron Harper Jr. With the win over Indiana, Rutgers has now won five straight games against the Hoosiers and are 6-1 against Indiana since the 2018-19 season. (See the video below of Ron Harper Jr.'s last second shot to seal the win against Indiana).

Following the stunning win over the Indiana Hoosiers, the Scarlet Knights prepared for their second meeting with their rival the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Nittany Lions hammered the Scarlet Knights in their first meeting but Rutgers would not allow this to happen again, especially at The RAC. Rutgers jumped out to a large lead and led by as many as 15 points in the second half. However, the Nittany Lions would not go away and kept chipping away at Rutgers lead. Penn State's Seth Lundy hit some critical shots down the stretch in the final minutes of the game to bring the Nittany Lions within 1 point. The final two plays of the game nearly gave Rutgers fans a heart attack as Paul Mulcahy turned the ball over from an inbounds pass play, and Penn State was given one last chance to win the game. Sam Sessoms put up a last second heave and his shot was off the mark. Rutgers prevailed with the victory. Most importantly, the Scarlet Knights were able to secure an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament. Rutgers completed a nearly impossible mission after a dreadful start to the season.

Rutgers finished the regular season with an overall record of 18-12 and 12-8 in Big Ten play. The Scarlet Knights finished in fourth place in the Big Ten standings, their best finish in program history since joining the Big Ten in 2014. The fourth place finish also gave Rutgers its first-ever double-bye for the Big Ten Conference Tournament. Rutgers' 12 wins in Big Ten play was the most conference wins in program history since joining the conference. What appeared to be a season flying off the rails for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights turned into a roller coaster ride of a season.

Big Ten Tournament

Although their time in the Big Ten Tournament was short-lived, Rutgers made their first-ever appearance as a 4-seed. Rutgers failed to upend the red hot Iowa Hawkeyes. The Hawkeyes were 12-2 in their last 14 games of the regular season, and won 6 of their last 7 games heading into the game against Rutgers. In their second meeting of the year, Rutgers got off to a fast start and led by as many as 10 points in the contest, but the Hawkeyes would go quietly. The Hawkeyes deployed a zone defense that stifled Rutgers' offense and Keegan Murray hit some huge shots to allow the Hawkeyes to come back and eventually take the lead for good. The Hawkeyes led by as many as 18 points, shot almost 50% from the field, and converted 25 of 27 free-throw attempts. Rutgers' defense could not slow down Iowa and committed 24 fouls in the game.

March Madness

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights were on edge with the fan base biting its finger nails eagerly waiting to hear their name to be called on Selection Sunday. Many bracketologists and analysts across the country had either placed Rutgers in the Field of 68, On the Bubble, or One of the Last Four Teams Out. Within 10 minutes of CBS' coverage of Selection Sunday, the Scarlet Knights were announced as an 11-seed in the Field of 68. They were set to play the 11-seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish (24-11; 15-5) in Dayton OH in the one of the First Four games. The winner would play the 6-seed Alabama Crimson Tide (19-14; 9-9). This is the first time since the 1970s Rutgers would earn back-to-back bids for the NCAA Tournament. (Note: The 2019-20 season was canceled due to the COVID pandemic. Rutgers would have earned a bid to the 2020 NCAA Tournament, thus ultimately marking this season as what would have been its third year in a row dancing in March.)

Analysts and fans across the college basketball spectrum felt that the matchup with Notre Dame was the perfect opportunity for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights to grab a tournament win, and that their seeding provided them an avenue to possibly reach the Sweet 16. Jay Bilas, of ESPN, said Rutgers was one of the more undervalued teams in the tournament and Rutgers could win potential matchups against vulnerable opponents like the 6-seed Alabama Crimson Tide and the 3-seed Texas Tech Red Raiders (27-9; 12-6). 

However, the Fighting Irish came well prepared for the Scarlet Knights when they met in Dayton. Mike Brey, head coach of the Fighting Irish, and his staff scouted Rutgers well and spread the floor offensively for Paul Atkinson to do his damage on Cliff Omoruyi in the paint. Aaron Breitman, writer and managing editor for On The Banks, described the Notre Dame-Rutgers game as strange because fans witnessed these two teams playing strikingly different styles that they normally do not play. A few things of note as to why the game was strikingly bizarre and different from any other game Rutgers has played this year:

  • Caleb McConnell, the 2021-22 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, had an electrifying night scoring a team high 23 points on 8 of 9 shooting. McConnell is not known for his scoring prowess.
  • The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, were limited to 6 made three-point shots.
  • The Fighting Irish scored 58 points in the paint. Not their greatest strength.
  • Rutgers prides itself on defense, and the defense was just not there for the game.
  • Typically, Rutgers wins when Ron Harper Jr. scores more than 20+ points in a game. Harper Jr. scored 22 points, and Rutgers lost.
  • Both teams shot an alarming 50% from the field.
  • Both teams were dismal from the free-throw line. Notre Dame shot 56% and Rutgers shot 66%.

Even though Rutgers lost to Notre Dame in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament, the Scarlet Knights never went down without a fight. Rutgers and Notre Dame exchanged leads constantly throughout the game. Rutgers led by as many as 8 points in the game. The double-overtime thriller was deemed as "the best basketball game of the 2022 NCAA Tournament". If this is indeed the last game for Caleb McConnell in a Rutgers uniform, he truly saved his best performance for last. This would be the last time Rutgers fans would see Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr. suit up in a Rutgers uniform.

The End of an Era

Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., and Caleb McConnell will leave Rutgers with a legacy unmatched. This trio of players gambled on playing for Steve Pikiell at a time when Rutgers was the worst rated Power 5 college basketball program in the country. 

Plagued by the Mike Rice Scandal and the failure to win games under Eddie Jordan, Rutgers looked for new leadership to take over the dwindling Big Ten basketball program. In 2016, newly hired athletic director Pat Hobbs turned to Steve Pikiell to become Rutgers men's basketball's head coach. 

Coach Pikiell had the reputation of being a competitor and a rebuilder. History speaks for itself in regard to Coach Pikiell. Coach Pikiell previously played college basketball under Jim Calhoun. He previously served as an assistant coach at Yale, Central Connecticut State, and George Washington (most notably, he was an asst. under Karl Hobbs, who is now his current assistant at Rutgers) before receiving his first head coach job at Stony Brook. 

Before arriving on The Banks, Coach Pikiell led the Stony Brook Seawolves, of the America East Conference, from 2005-2016. Coach Pikiell inherited a team that was still in its early years of Division I basketball, had poor training facilities, and typically remained at the bottom of its conference. Under Steve Pikiell's vision and the patience of the Stony Brook athletic administration, Coach Pikiell was able to turn the program from bottom feeders to winners. In his first seven seasons at Stony Brook, the Sea Wolves went 55-140 overall and 32-84 in the America East. But success was observed by the fourth season when the Sea Wolves had their first winning season in Division I as they finished 16-14 overall and 8-8 in their conference. By his fifth season at the helm, the Stony Brook Sea Wolves would go onto to win at least 22 or more games per season with a three trips to the NIT and one trip to the NCAA Tournament.

The same type of rebuilding success many witnessed at Stony Brook, is the same type of rebuilding success we are witnessing at Rutgers. Once a hapless program since the early 90's, Rutgers has risen to respectability across the Big Ten Conference and college basketball. Rutgers is no longer a destination players avoid, rather it has become a destination for players who want to compete in the best conference in the country and to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament. Steve Pikiell has proven he has been able to win by resurrecting one of the worst Power 5 college basketball programs in the country. Legendary college basketball coach Jim Calhoun once said to AD Pat Hobbs, "He's not going to work miracles, but he's going to get Rutgers back to where they think they belong and where I think they belong."

Steve Pikiell has reinvigorated a dying fan base, and now Rutgers has one of the best homecourt advantages in the country. (Check out this video of some of the loudest moments at Rutgers under Coach Pikiell by clicking here). Since 2019, under Steve Pikiell, Rutgers is an astonishing 42-8 at The RAC. This has become a place no college basketball opponent wants to play at. How has Steve Pikiell been able to accomplish this?

Coach Pikiell has been successful at Rutgers because he has mastered the art of recruiting under the radar talent and finding players that fit the system he has implemented. But most importantly, Coach Pikiell has underappreciated skill of player development. Coach Pikiell typically recruits players that are willing to learn and develop, play unselfish team-oriented basketball, and work hard in the gym. Coach Pikiell is not the typical coach that goes after highly touted five-star players or prolific scorers. As we have seen over the years, Coach Pikiell has typically recruited tough, hard-nosed physical defensive style players.

(photo courtesy of Rutgers Athletics)

In 2016, Steve Pikiell took a gamble on recruiting two/three-star recruit Geo Baker, who held other offers from Kansas State, Drexel, Penn, and Rice, to become the next driving force behind Rutgers basketball. When Geo baker committed to Rutgers in the summer of 2016, almost immediately Steve Pikiell and his staff went to work on Geo Baker helping him transcend into one of the best point guards in Rutgers basketball history. Geo Baker came to Rutgers when no one else would and bought into Steve Pikiell's vision. Year after year, Geo Baker's game improved and he eventually became the face of Rutgers basketball. Under Geo Baker's leadership, he was able to help his teammates win games and achieve the impossible...Rutgers' first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 1970s. Geo Baker was a clutch player that delivered incredible performances over his five year career at Rutgers. At the end of Geo Baker's career he was selected twice to the All Big Ten Conference Third-Team (2020, 2022). He became a true ambassador of Rutgers basketball, and proof that under-recruited and overlooked players can thrive at the highest level of college basketball. (Check out our article as we paid tribute to Geo Baker by clicking here and please view Jack Bisasha's tribute to Geo Baker in the links provided below). 

In 2017, Steve Pikiell, Brandin Knight, and Karl Hobbs hit the recruiting trail hard in the search to fill several voids left by PG Corey Sanders departing and declaring for the NBA Draft, and the graduations of G Mike Williams, F Deshawn Freeman, and F Candido Sa. Pikiell turned his recruiting efforts to finding hidden gems in Caleb McConnell and Ron Harper Jr. Caleb McConnell, rated a three-star per 247 Sports, held other offers from Wichita State, Kent State, and Massachusetts, but ultimately in the end he chose Rutgers in the Spring of 2018. Surprisingly at the time Ron Harper Jr. was recruited, he was rated 'no stars' by all of the recruiting media sites that tracked high school recruits. Harper Jr. held offers from Radford, Liberty, Nebraska, and Georgia State, but the Don Bosco Prep graduate decided to stay in New Jersey and committed to the Scarlet Knights in August 2017. (please read the article by Jerry Carino covering Ron Harper Jr.'s recruitment to Rutgers by clicking here).

Over the course of the past four years of McConnell's and Harper Jr.'s careers, these two helped provide a major boost to a Rutgers program trying to make its staple in the Big Ten by committing themselves to playing unselfish basketball and dedication towards working hard in the gym. Fans will always have many moments and memories to share in regards to McConnell and Harper Jr. but they will always be remembered for helping Rutgers ascend to respectability in the Big Ten. McConnell and Harper Jr. were both major contributors towards helping Rutgers earn its first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991 as well as helping Rutgers earn back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths.

(photo courtesy of Rutgers Athletics)

Caleb McConnell may very well be the best defensive player in Rutgers basketball history and he was the first to earn the 2021-22 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award as well as becoming a semifinalist for the 2021-22 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. Caleb McConnell came up big many times in huge games with countless defensive stops, including steals and blocks. No other defensive stop was as big as the one he made in the game against Ohio State this season, in which McConnell sprinted the length of the floor to deny  Malaki Branham an easy layup which could have extended Ohio State's lead in the closing stretch of the game. The block by McConnell was the play that ignited a furious comeback by Rutgers to win the game. Caleb McConnell was a warrior who put his body on the line and he never quit. Every game McConnell always put in his best effort. In what will likely be his last game in a Rutgers uniform, McConnell delivered the performance of his career as he scored 23 points, registered one block and one steal, grabbed 11 rebounds, made 2 assists, and shot nearly perfect from the field. (Please read our tribute to Caleb McConnell by clicking here.)

(photo courtesy of Rutgers Athletics)

Ron Harper Jr. will more than likely go down as one of the greatest Rutgers basketball players in history. His development over the course of the past four years has been remarkable, and like Geo Baker, Harper Jr. was a clutch player that delivered big play after big play and had the uncanny ability to hit big shots with a game on the line. Harper Jr. will always be remembered for his last second heave that beat previously ranked #1 Purdue but when his jersey hangs from the rafters in Piscataway, Ron Harper Jr. was one of the pioneers that helped Rutgers rise from the pits of hell to the top four in the Big Ten standings. Ron Harper Jr. finished the 2021-22 season with the highest scoring average of his career at 15.8 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game, 40% three-point shooting, nearly 80% shooting at the free-throw line, and 1.9 assists per game. Harper Jr. was selected to the All Big Ten Second-Team (2022) and Third-Team (2021) as well as Honorable Mention All-American by the Associated Press (2022). (Please click here to read our tribute to Ron Harper Jr. by clicking here.)

This trio will always be remembered as the transformational group that turned around a terrible dwindling Rutgers basketball program. They will truly leave Rutgers in a better place than when they first arrived on The Banks. They are the ones that saved Rutgers basketball.

Additional Links & Coverage

Please take some time to check out some of the links below for additional coverage, including articles and podcasts of Rutgers men's basketball. Aaron Breitman, managing editor of On The Banks (OTB), is one of my favorite analysts and writers that covers Rutgers Athletics. Take a listen to his most recent podcast with fellow OTB contributor Dave White. This is a fun podcast episode where Aaron and Dave recap the Rutgers men's basketball 2021-22 season. Also, check out Asbury Park Press beat writer Jerry Carino's articles and coverage of Rutgers men's hoops. Take a second to check out the 'senior spotlight' articles by Jack Bisasha, writer for The Daily Targum. Jack does a great job reflecting on this year's Rutgers men's basketball's seniors. Take a step back to the 2020 to enjoy a piece written by Keith Sargent of NJ Advance Media and the inside story of how Steve Pikiell was hired to fix Rutgers men's basketball. Finally, check out the podcast by NJ Advance Media. Steve Politi raises some good questions while James Kratch and Brian Fonseca try to provide answers.

  • Aaron Breitman & Dave White, On The Banks - "On The Banks Podcast Episode #133: Rutgers men's basketball season recap" - (Click here to listen)
  • Aaron Breitman, On The Banks - "The 2021-2022 Rutgers men's basketball season was..." - (Click here to read
  • Jerry Carino, Asbury Park Press - "Rutgers basketball: 5 offseason priorities" - (Click here to read)
  • Jerry Carino, Asbury Park Press - "In epic Rutgers loss to Notre Dame, Caleb McConnell went out a warrior" - (Click here to read)
  • James Kratch, NJ Advance Media - "Rutgers Rant Podcast: Rutgers lost a March Madness classic. What's next?" - (Click here to listen)
  • Jack Bisasha, The Daily Targum - "Senior Spotlight: Luke Nathan and Ralph Gonzales-Agee" - (Click here to read)
  • Jack Bisasha, The Daily Targum - "Senior Spotlight: Caleb McConnell" - (Click here to read)
  • Jack Bisasha, The Daily Targum - "Senior Spotlight: Ron Harper Jr." - (Click here to read)
  • Jack Bisasha, The Daily Targum - "Senior Spotlight: Geo Baker" - (Click here to read)
  • Keith Sargent, NJ Advance Media - "We did the deal on a handshake' over coffee and eggs | The inside story of how Rutgers hired Steve Pikiell to rebuild its men's basketball program" - (Click here to read)
  • Brian Fonseca, NJ Advance Media - "Unbreakable: How Rutgers' Caleb McConnell went from 'soft' and skinny to the 'toughest damn dude in the Big Ten' - (Click here to read)
  • Jerry Carino, Asbury Park Press - "Rutgers basketball: Ron Harper Jr. and the art of recruiting overlooked talent" - (Click here to read)

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Keys to the Game: Rutgers vs Notre Dame (March 16, 2022)

(photo courtesy of Sporting News)

11 Rutgers (18-13; 12-8) vs. 11 Notre Dame (22-10; 15-5)
NCAA Tournament First Four

Rutgers Scarlet Knights fans, players, and coaches alike can finally breathe a sigh of relief. Rutgers has made back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time since the 1970s. This is the Scarlet Knights' eighth appearance overall in the NCAA Tournament. After sweating it out for 48 hours from Friday evening to Sunday evening, Rutgers' name was called in the Field of 68, and they were selected as an 11-seed to take on the 11-seed Notre Dame Fighting Irish (22-10; 15-5) in the First Four Game in Dayton, OH (approx. 9:15 PM; TruTV). The winner of this game will meet the 6-seed Alabama Crimson Tide (19-13; 9-9) on Friday in San Diego (approx. 4:15 PM; TNT).

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are an intriguing team, and are a bit different than many of the opponents Rutgers has faced this season. Many writers and analysts across college basketball have mentioned the Fighting Irish lack physicality and athleticism, but have a pretty efficient offense. Fred Gaudios, a writer for the Rutgers SB Nation web site On The Banks, has compared Notre Dame to the Ohio State Buckeyes, an opponent Rutgers has beaten earlier this season. Gaudios compared Ohio State's and Notre Dame's offensive and defensive numbers statistically, and both are appear to very similar (please click here to read Fred Gaudios' article). Despite Notre Dame's lack of physicality and athleticism, Notre Dame does have a few playmakers that will step up and keep the Fighting Irish in the game. If the Fighting Irish get their offense going like a fine tuned oiled machine, Rutgers could be in for serious trouble. 

Rutgers Hoops Insider (RHI) compared Rutgers' tournament resume to other bubble teams, and a few things stand out between both teams resume-wise and statistically:

  • Notre Dame has marquee wins over solid opponents, including Kentucky, Miami, and North Carolina. However, Rutgers has more marquee wins, including Purdue, Michigan, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan State, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illiniois, and Indiana.
  • Rutgers was rated the most erratic team in the country this year, according to Erik Haslam.
  • Notre Dame and Rutgers share victories over Clemson. Notre Dame lost to Indiana while Rutgers beat the Hoosiers.
  • Notre Dame is a combined 2-7 against Top 40 NET ranked teams, while Rutgers is 8-6.
  • Notre Dame is rated 29th in offensive efficiency, while Rutgers is ranked 107th.
  • Notre Dame is rated 84th in defensive efficiency, while Rutgers is ranked 43rd.
  • Notre Dame is 19th nationally shooting the ball from deep, while Rutgers is 197th.
  • Notre Dame is disciplined and commits less fouls than Rutgers. Rutgers commits a lot of fouls.
  • Both teams are good at limiting turnovers.
  1. Defend the perimeter - It seems like every basketball game RHI mention's the Scarlet Knights must defend the perimeter, but it is absolutely true! In today's modern era college basketball, you live by the three, and you die by the three. Rutgers has faced so many quality opponents this year that are very good a shooting from deep, and many of their opponents have hit back-breaking three-point shots. Notre Dame is a team that loves to shoot from deep. Rutgers is going to have to defend the perimeter like no other. The Fighting Irish are 14-1 when they make 10+ three-point shots in a game. That is a glaring statistic that stands out and Rutgers has to limit any good looks for the Fighting Irish from deep. Nate Laszewski and Dane Goodwin are the Fighting Irish's primary threats from deep. Both are shooting a combined 45% from deep.
  2. Pound the rock - Rutgers is at its best when they pound the rock inside. Notre Dame is not a very physical team down low, and Rutgers must keep feeding the ball to Ron Harper Jr. and Cliff Omoruyi down low if they want to have any success. If that option is not available, look for Geo Baker and Paul Mulcahy to drive the lane and force the issue.
  3. No slow starts, find good looks, and do not get cold from the field - Rutgers is really good at scoring when they can distribute the ball quickly during fast break situations but Notre Dame is the type of team that wants to limit fast breaks and slow down the tempo of the game. The Scarlet Knights must try to find ways to get good looks at the basket, and not force any bad shots, especially bad shots from deep. Many times during the season, Rutgers finds itself down by a few points, and they start forcing bad shots to get themselves back in the game. Then Rutgers goes on a scoring drought and their opponents take advantage and build leads. Rutgers wants to get off to a good start in this game and not find themselves down by double-digits early. All too often we have seen this team fall behind by double-digits, and Rutgers has to find ways to claw and scratch to get themselves back in the game. Sometimes Rutgers has been successful in coming from behind to win or they have been unsuccessful. Overall, it is a good idea they work for good shots and not fall behind by double-digits.
  4. Remain disciplined - Notre Dame is a very good free-throw shooting team. They average about 76 percent from the line, and if Rutgers commits too many fouls, you can bet that Notre Dame will take advantage and hit their free-throws. This past Friday, when Rutgers faced Iowa, Rutgers committed way too many fouls and the Hawkeyes were able to take advantage by going 25 of 27 from the line. That easily tells you Rutgers committed way too many fouls. Rutgers gifted Iowa 25 points from the line by committing 24 fouls. Rutgers also has to be smart and not commit technical fouls. Technical fouls are game changers and momentum killers. Not only does Rutgers' players have to remain mentally focused and disciplined, but Rutgers' bench must be smart. The Scarlet Knights' strength training coach was T'd up twice on Friday and ejected. That is not smart basketball. We all know emotions are riding on this tournament game, but this is a group of experienced players and Rutgers must be disciplined.
  5. Play physical and aggressive basketball - Notre Dame is not a physical team. They do not play aggressive basketball. Rutgers is the complete opposite. Rutgers is a very physical and aggressive team. Rutgers has to continue doing what they do best and that is play tough, physical defense and remain aggressive on the boards. Notre Dame is not a good rebounding team, and Rutgers must take advantage. If Rutgers can play clean, tough physical basketball and stay aggressive on the boards, Rutgers will be successful in this game. Look for Harper Jr. to matchup with Paul Atkinson Jr. (12.3 ppg) and Big Ten DPOY Caleb McConnell to guard Blake Wesley (14.6 ppg). 
  • Fred Gaudios, On the Banks - "Rutgers has beaten a Big Ten foe with similar profile to Notre Dame" - (Click here to read)
  • Aaron Breitman, On the Banks - "NCAA Tournament First Four Game Preview: No. 11 Rutgers vs No. 11 Notre Dame" - (Click here to read)
  • Aaron Breitman, On the Banks - "On the Banks Podcast: NCAA Tournament Preview Episode" - (Click here to listen)
  • Jerry Carino, Asbury Park Press - "Rutgers basketball: Ace recruit Derek Simpson fired up for March Madness" - (Click here to read)
  • Dave White, On the Banks - "Unfinished Business: 4 Thoughts on Rutgers NCAA Bid" - (Click here to read)

Saturday, March 12, 2022

Rutgers NCAA Tournament resume vs the other bubble teams

(photo courtesy of Michael Conroy of NJ Advance Media)

How does Rutgers tournament resume stack up against the other bubble teams?

As Selection Sunday nears, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have one of the most interesting tournament resumes in the country. There are positive and there are negatives. Let's compare the Scarlet Knights' resume to the rest of the bubble teams. (Note: All information is current as of 12 March. Seeding projection is based on BracketMatrix.com.)


  • Latest Seed Projection: 12 (Last Four In)
  • NET Rankings: 78
  • KenPom Rankings: 75
  • Sagarin Ratings: 59
  • NET SOS: 33
  • Home Record: 14-3
  • Away Record: 4-9 (includes two Q1 wins)
  • Neutral Record: 0-1 (includes Q1 loss)
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 6-6
    • Q2: 3-4
    • Q3: 4-2
    • Q4: 5-1
  • Best Wins: Purdue, 12/9; Michigan, 1/4; Maryland, 1/15; Iowa, 1/19; Michigan State, 2/5; Ohio State, 2/9; Wisconsin, 2/12; Illinois, 2/16; Indiana, 3/2
  • Bad Losses (Q3/Q4): Lafayette, 11/22; Massachusetts, 11/27
  • Interesting note: Rutgers has beaten all of its opponents in the Top 40 of the NET Rankings and Rutgers has wins against eight teams projected to make the NCAA Tournament. This is better than any team considered to be on the Bubble. Rutgers is 8-6 against Top 40 NET teams.



  • Latest Seed Projection: 12 (Last Four In)
  • NET Rankings: 52
  • KenPom Rankings: 53
  • Sagarin Ratings: 53
  • NET SOS: 66
  • Home Record: 14-1
  • Away Record: 7-5
  • Neutral Record: 0-4
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 2-7
    • Q2: 2-2
    • Q3: 11-1
    • Q4: 6-0
  • Best Wins: Kentucky, 12/11; North Carolina, 1/5; Miami, 2/2; Clemson, 2/12
  • Bad Losses: Boston College, 12/3
  • Interesting note: Notre Dame is 0-4 on neutral courts to Q1/Q2 teams with losses to St. Mary's, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, and Indiana. Notre Dame is a combined 4-9 against Q1/Q2 teams. Notre is also 2-7 against Top 40 NET teams. Notre Dame played in a very lackluster ACC this year. Duke and UNC are the only two AP ranked teams in the ACC out of 15 teams.


  • Latest Seed Projection: 12 (Last Four In)
  • NET Rankings: 40
  • KenPom Rankings: 60
  • Sagarin Ratings: 42
  • NET SOS: 36
  • Home Record: 13-5
  • Away Record: 4-6
  • Neutral Record: 1-2
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 5-8
    • Q2: 4-3
    • Q3: 4-2
    • Q4: 5-0
  • Best Wins: Ohio State, 11/18; Virginia Tech, 11/26; Oklahoma State, 12/5; Marquette, 12/18; Creighton, 1/15; Creighton, 1/29; Connecticut, 2/11
  • Bad Losses: DePaul, 2/5; Butler, 3/9
  • Interesting note: Xavier has lost eight out of their last ten games including two Q3 losses to DePaul and Butler. Seton Hall, Villanova, St. John's, and Providence swept the Xavier this season. Xavier is 3-7 against the Top 40 NET teams.


  • Latest Seed Projection: 12 (Last Four In)
  • NET Rankings: 42
  • KenPom Rankings: 52
  • Sagarin Ratings: 39
  • NET SOS: 109
  • Home Record: 16-0
  • Away Record: 6-5
  • Neutral Record: 1-2
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 2-1
    • Q2: 4-4
    • Q3: 10-1
    • Q4: 7-1
  • Best Wins: Vanderbilt, 12/4; Dayton, 12/8; Memphis, 1/20; Houston, 2/9; Memphis, 2/20
  • Bad Losses: Missouri, 11/21; Loyola Marymount, 11/22
  • Interesting note: SMU has only played three Q1 teams the entire season. SMU's best win outside of the American Athletic Conference is Vanderbilt (#66 NET Ranking).


  • Latest Seed Projection: First Four Out
  • NET Rankings: 30
  • KenPom Rankings: 25
  • Sagarin Ratings: 31
  • NET SOS: 80
  • Home Record: 11-4
  • Away Record: 7-6
  • Neutral Record: 4-2
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 2-5
    • Q2: 6-5
    • Q3: 7-2
    • Q4: 7-0
  • Best Wins: Notre Dame, 1/15; Miami, 2/26; Notre Dame, 3/10; North Carolina, 3/11
  • Bad Losses: NC State, 1/4; Boston College, 1/22
  • Interesting note: Virginia Tech has solid rankings and ratings across the board, but Virginia Tech lacks quality wins. Virginia Tech's best win on their resume in the Top 40 of the NET is against North Carolina in the ACC Tournament. Notre Dame (#52) and Miami (#63) are outside of the Top 40. Virginia Tech is 1-5 against Top 40 NET teams. Virginia Tech played in a very lackluster ACC this year.


  • Latest Seed Projection: 11 (Last Four Bye)
  • NET Rankings: 34
  • KenPom Rankings: 33
  • Sagarin Ratings: 25
  • NET SOS: 5
  • Home Record: 10-5
  • Away Record: 5-7
  • Neutral Record: 2-2
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 5-10
    • Q2: 3-3
    • Q3: 6-1
    • Q4: 3-0
  • Best Wins: San Diego State, 12/4; Indiana, 1/23; Purdue, 2/10; Iowa, 2/17; Michigan State, 3/1; Ohio State, 3/6
  • Bad Losses: Minnesota, 12/11
  • Interesting note: Michigan is a very interesting team because their overall record is 17-14. Michigan is 6-11 against Top 40 NET ranked teams.

WYOMING COWBOYS (25-8; 13-5)

  • Latest Seed Projection: 11-seed (Last Four Bye)
  • NET Rankings: 48
  • KenPom Rankings: 58
  • Sagarin Ratings: 83
  • NET SOS: 90
  • Home Record: 13-1
  • Away Record: 9-5
  • Neutral Record: 2-2
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 4-5
    • Q2: 7-1
    • Q3: 3-2
    • Q4: 10-0
  • Best Wins: Utah State, 1/15; Colorado State, 1/31; Boise State, 2/3; Fresno State, 2/6; Utah State, 2/8; Fresno State, 3/5
  • Bad Losses: New Mexico, 2/15
  • Interesting note: Wyoming is another interesting team, they have wins against two teams from the Mountain West, Boise State and Colorado State, projected to make the NCAA Tournament. Wyoming has padded their win total with a lot of Q4 opponents and also played an NAIA team on 11/26. Wyoming is 2-5 against Top 40 NET ranked teams.


  • Latest Seed Projection: First Four Out
  • NET Rankings: 45
  • KenPom Rankings: 36
  • Sagarin Ratings: 47
  • NET SOS: 104
  • Home Record: 16-2
  • Away Record: 5-5
  • Neutral Record: 2-2
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 1-4
    • Q2: 4-3
    • Q3: 9-2
    • Q4: 9-0
  • Best Wins: Virginia Tech, 12/4; North Carolina, 1/22; Notre Dame, 2/19
  • Bad Losses: Louisville, 12/29; Boston College, 3/9
  • Interesting note: Wake Forest has one of the worst rated non-conference schedules in the country of all the teams on the Bubble and lack any quality wins. The Demon Deacons are 2-3 against Top 40 NET ranked teams. The Demon Deacons played in a very lackluster ACC conference.

DAYTON FLYERS (23-10; 14-4)

  • Latest Seed Projection: Next Four Out
  • NET Rankings: 54
  • KenPom Rankings: 54
  • Sagarin Ratings: 56
  • NET SOS: 118
  • Home Record: 13-4
  • Road Record: 6-5
  • Neutral Record: 4-0
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 3-2
    • Q2: 5-3
    • Q3: 6-1
    • Q4: 9-3
  • Best Wins: Miami, 11/25; Kansas, 11/26; Belmont, 11/28; Virginia Tech, 12/12; VCU, 1/5; St. Louis, 1/11; VCU, 2/2; Davidson, 3/5
  • Bad Losses: UMass-Lowell, 11/13; Lipscomb, 11/17; Austin Peay, 11/20; LaSalle, 2/26
  • Interesting note: While Dayton has some of the best wins all season, they have some really bad losses. Dayton is 2-0 against Top 40 NET ranked teams. Dayton only faced regular season champ Davidson once this season and beat them on 3/5. Dayton swept VCU for the year.

TEXAS A&M AGGIES (23-11; 9-9)

  • Latest Seed Projection: First Four Out
  • NET Rankings: 51
  • KenPom Rankings: 42
  • Sagarin Ratings: 55
  • NET SOS: 50
  • Home Record: 12-4
  • Away Record: 5-5
  • Neutral Record: 4-2
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 4-9
    • Q2: 5-0
    • Q3: 5-2
    • Q4: 8-0
  • Best Wins: Notre Dame, 11/24; Arkansas, 1/8; Florida, 2/15; Alabama, 3/2; Mississippi State, 3/5; Florida, 3/10; Auburn, 3/11, Arkansas, 3/12
  • Bad Losses: Missouri, 1/15
  • Interesting note: Texas A&M has come alive in the SEC Tournament and have three in a row against Q1 opponents. For much of the season Texas A&M lacked quality wins. The Aggies have padded their record with a slew of Q4 opponents; however, Texas A&M is 5-0 against Q2 opponents. The Aggies are 4-7 against Top 40 NET Ranked teams.

INDIANA HOOSIERS (20-13; 9-11)

  • Latest Seed Projection: 11 (Last Four Bye)
  • NET Rankings: 38
  • KenPom Rankings: 39
  • Sagarin Ratings: 29
  • NET SOS: 41
  • Home Record: 14-4
  • Away Record: 3-8
  • Neutral Record: 3-0
  • Quadrant Record:
    • Q1: 4-7
    • Q2: 4-4
    • Q3: 5-1
    • Q4: 7-0
  • Best Wins: Notre Dame, 12/18; Ohio State, 1/6; Purdue, 1/20; Michigan, 3/10; Illinois, 3/11
  • Bad Losses: None
  • Interesting note: Indiana has no bad losses (however, they did lose a Q3 game to Rutgers at home). Indiana was able to earn two more Q1 wins on a neutral floor in the Big Ten Tournament against Michigan and Illinois, otherwise their best wins for the year would have been against Ohio State and Purdue at home.

Bubble watch Saturday

(photo courtesy of Michael Conroy of NJ Advance Media)

After falling to Iowa 84-74 in the Big Ten Quarterfinals, Rutgers needs other bubble teams to lose

The 4-seed Rutgers Scarlet Knights lost to the red hot 5-seed Iowa Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Quarterfinals on Friday afternoon 84-74. Rutgers Nation eagerly awaits for their name to be called on Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament. If Rutgers hears their name called on Sunday, it is likely they will be playing as one of the last four teams in, which means they will earn a 12-seed playing in Dayton.

Aaron Breitman [managing editor of OnTheBanks.com] has done an extraordinary job keeping Rutgers fans updated throughout the week on their status for the NCAA Tournament, including bracket updates, possible scenarios, the case for Rutgers to make the tournament, and who to root for and who not to root for. 

Check out Aaron's article that makes the case as to why Rutgers should be in the NCAA Tournament by clicking here.

Check out Aaron's Bubble Watch updates by clicking here.

(as of 12 March; ratings according to BracketMatrix.com)

  • The #1 rated bracketologist on BracketMatrix.com CrazySportsDude has Rutgers solidly in the field as an 11-seed.
  • The #2 rated bracketologist Delphi has Rutgers out of the field. This bracketologist has not even included Rutgers in the First Four Out.
  • #6 rated bracketologist Kevin Pulsifer has Rutgers in the field as an 11-seed but playing Notre Dame in Dayton.
  • #17 rated bracketologist Brad Wachtel has Rutgers in the Field of 68 as a 12-seed facing SMU in Dayton.
  • #20 rated bracketologist Mike Decourcy [of Fox] has Rutgers in the field as a 12-seed facing Wyoming in Dayton.
  • #33 rated bracketologist Andy Katz [of NCAA.com] has Rutgers in the field as a 12-seed playing in Dayton.
  • #50 rated bracketologist Joe Lunardi [of ESPN] has Rutgers in the field as an 11-seed facing 6-seed LSU.
  • #100 rated bracketologist Jerry Palm [of CBS Sports] has Rutgers out of the field in the First Four Out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Rutgers trio earns Big Ten Awards

(photo courtesy of Rutgers Athletics)

Caleb McConnell, Ron Harper Jr., and Geo Baker were all selected for Big Ten awards

Caleb McConnell, Ron Harper Jr., and Geo Baker were all selected for Big Ten awards for the 2021-22 season. Caleb McConnell made history as the first Scarlet Knight to ever earn the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year award. McConnell was also selected to the Big Ten All-Defensive Team. Ron Harper Jr. was selected to the second-team All Big Ten, while Geo Baker was selected to the third-team All Big Ten. 

Caleb McConnell helped lead the Scarlet Knights defensively throughout the entire season and put up remarkable numbers. McConnell led the Big Ten with a total of 43 steals, 11 blocks, 2.2 steals per game, 86 defensive rebounds, and 4.3 defensive rebounds per game during 20 Big Ten regular season games. 

The highlight of Caleb McConnell's season was when he averaged at least 4 steals per game during the Scarlet Knights improbable four-game winning streak over four ranked Big Ten teams, including Illinois, Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. Caleb McConnell's block against Ohio State in the closing minutes is attributed to spurring Rutgers with a magical comeback that led them to victory over the Buckeyes.

Caleb McConnell is also one of ten finalists for the 2022 Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, a national award for college basketball's best defensive player. He is the only player from the Big Ten nominated this season.

(photo courtesy of USA Today)

Ron Harper Jr. who has had a wonderful season for Rutgers was selected to the second-team All Big Ten. Harper Jr. averaged 15.7 points per game, 44% from the field, 39.9% from three-point range, and 6 rebounds per game during the Big Ten season. Harper Jr.'s highlights include a last second heave from near mid-court which upset then ranked #1 Purdue, and his three-point shot from deep that silenced a wild Assembly Hall crowd with 2 seconds left as Rutgers upset Indiana. 

(photo courtesy of USA Today)

Geo Baker was selected to the third-team All Big Ten. Baker averaged 12 points per game, 3.9 assists per game, and 1.2 steals per game. After the massive block by Caleb McConnell, Geo Baker was the catalyst that led Rutgers to a comeback victory over Ohio State. 

All three are deserving of their awards, and will forever be remembered in the hearts of Rutgers fans. They will go down as legends at Rutgers. There are too many special moments to share with these players. This has been a unique season filled with many special moments, and we can only hope we can see many more special moments from them come NCAA Tournament time and before their time is up on The Banks.

For more information on these awards please visit the articles listed below.

Monday, March 7, 2022

Bracketology: Where is Rutgers currently projected in the field of 68?

Where is Rutgers currently projected for 2022 NCAA Tournament?

After an historic four-game winning streak against four ranked opponents and two critical wins during the month of February and early March at the end of the regular season, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (18-12; 12-8) find themselves as a 4-seed heading into the Big Ten Tournament. But, will this be enough for the Scarlet Knights to receive another at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament? Many bracketologists and analysts across college basketball believe it is enough for Rutgers to make the NCAA Tournament.

Currently, the Scarlet Knights are ranked #76 in the NET Rankings, #73 in the KenPom ratings, and #59 in the Sagarin Ratings. Despite Rutgers being #76 in the NET, analysts and fans across the country believe Rutgers has broken the system. The NET is a tool the NCAA Tournament Committee uses to evaluate teams worthy of a shot at an at-large bid into the tournament. Rutgers is currently 6-5 against Q1 opponents; 3-4 against Q2 opponents; 4-2 against Q3 opponents; and 5-1 against Q4 opponents. Rutgers has a solid record against Q1 opponents and they have more Q1 wins than many other teams projected to make the tournament, including Houston who is #5 in the NET with only one Q1 win. 

Brad Wachtel, of Facts and Bracks, stated on Twitter: "As of today, Rutgers (76 NET) is still considered a Q3 "bad loss" for Wisconsin and Indiana. I think the NET needs some offseason tweaking." Analysts and fans across the country share the same frustration, and believe the NET needs to be fixed. Despite a bad Q4 loss to Lafayette, Rutgers has beaten some of the best teams in the country this season, and it's almost as if the Q4 loss is weighing them down. A loss to Rutgers for Wisconsin and Indiana should not show up a stain on their resumes because the Scarlet Knights are actually a very good team, finishing fourth in the Big Ten regular season standings.

Rutgers is a solid team, with a few bruises on its resume, but they have turned it around and are now on the cusp of receiving a possible at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Rutgers awaits the winner of 5-seed Iowa vs 12-seed Northwestern/13-seed Nebraska on Friday, March 11th (2 PM, BTN). If Rutgers were to face Iowa (Q1) on Friday, a loss would not hurt their standing; however, if Rutgers faces either Northwestern (Q2) or Nebraska (Q3) and lose, a loss could be potentially damaging to their NCAA Tournament chances. 

According to Bracket Matrix as of 7 March, Rutgers is currently projected to make the Field of 68 in at least 103 brackets out of 132. 

Popular bracketologists like Joe Lunardi of ESPN (rated 55 on Bracket Matrix) have Rutgers in the field as a 10-seed. Jerry Palm of CBS Sports (rated 100 on Bracket Matrix) has Rutgers in as a 12-seed and playing in Dayton as one of the "Last Four In". Mike Decourcy of Fox Sports (rated 20 on Bracket Matrix) has Rutgers in as an 11-seed. Brad Wachtel of Facts and Bracks (rated 15 on Bracket Matrix) has Rutgers in the field as a 12-seed playing in the "Last Four In". Many other bracketologists on Bracket Matrix have either projected Rutgers as a 12-seed or 11-seed (mean average of a 12-seed).

For more bracketology projections please visit BracketMatrix.com by clicking here.

Rutgers prevails, earns double-bye for Big Ten Tournament

(photo courtesy of Andrew Mills of NJ Advance Media)

Rutgers beats Penn State, while both Ohio State and Iowa lose giving the Scarlet Knights a double-bye in the Big Ten Tournament

It wasn't easy and it wasn't pretty, but the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (18-12; 12-8) found a way to win against their rival the Penn State Nittany Lions (12-16; 7-13), and continue their historic run at an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament. Victories under Steve Pikiell are never pretty, and that's because he likes to win ugly. Aaron Breitman, managing editor of On The Banks, stated "Rutgers wins on Senior Day with perfect ending". Breitman alluded to Rutgers winning with a "perfect ending" because once again, the Scarlet Knights overcame adversity and defied all odds. 

A lot of emotion was swirling around before and after the game because it was Senior Day at The RAC. This was the last time Rutgers nation got to see Geo Baker, Ron Harper Jr., and Caleb McConnell suit up in action at The RAC. Hours before tip-off, as reported by Brian Fonseca of NJ Advance Media, students waited in long lines for student tickets to see this trio play one last time. Just hours before tip-off, Rutgers cheap seats were listed for over $300 each on StubHub. After all was said and done, The RAC was packed to the gills (official attendance of 8,399) to send-off these Rutgers legends one last time in superb fashion.

Once again, the Scarlet Knights were under immense pressure to win their last game of the regular season against Penn State. There were three main things that hung in the balance and why it was necessary for Rutgers to beat Penn State:

  • A must-win against Penn State (Q3). A loss to Penn State would have likely ended Rutgers chances of receiving an at-large bid for the NCAA Tournament.
  • A chance for 4th place in the Big Ten final regular season standings. Since joining the league Rutgers has never finished in 4th place in the conference. From 2015 to 2018, Rutgers finished at the bottom in 14th place. In 2019, Rutgers finished in 12th place. In 2020, Rutgers finished in 8th place. Last season, Rutgers finished 7th place. 
  • A chance to lock up a double-bye. With a victory and fortunes on their side (losses for Ohio State and Iowa), Rutgers was able to secure 4th place and receive a double-bye in the Big Ten Conference tournament. This is the first time in Rutgers basketball history they have been able to receive a double-bye.

After being written off many times by the media and fans, this Rutgers team found a way to persevere. They played with great mental focus, toughness, and tenacity against Penn State. There was no way this team was going to lay down and let Penn State trounce them like they did earlier in the season. 

Rutgers can rest easy for almost the entirety of the week, as they will await the winner of Iowa vs Northwestern/Nebraska on Friday, March 11th (2 PM, BTN). Sure, Rutgers will have some intense practices leading up to the conference tournament and some time off to relax, but the Scarlet Knights must not forget what got them to a 4-seed. It was their will to never let up, and never quit. Rutgers has a serious chance at making an appearance in the Big Ten Tournament Championship, and possibly winning the entire conference tournament. As it stands, Rutgers is at +2300 odds to win the Big Ten Tournament, according to Circa Sports.

As spectators and analysts of college basketball, we are seeing one of the most amazing runs from a college basketball team that you might not see for years to come. This team barely had a pulse after losing to Lafayette and Massachusetts earlier in the season, but the Scarlet Knights fought hard and defied the odds. Their relentless hard work, never quit attitude, and will to fight kept them afloat and eventually catapulted them into the top four of the Big Ten conference, and most importantly of all, a shot at an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament.