Last night, the Scarlet Knights season came to an end in the first round of a postseason tournament in overtime. Sound familiar? It should. This marks the second year in a row that the Knights have finished their year this way, falling to Notre Dame in the First Four last year.
This year, however, it was not the tournament that Rutgers wanted to be participating in. The Knights were a one seed in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), otherwise known as “Not In Tournament”. The NCAA Tournament Selection Committee left Rutgers out of March Madness, ending their two (would be three if not for COVID) year streak of making the tournament.
Rutgers stumbled in the last stretch of the season, losing six of their last eight regular season games following Mawot Mag’s season-ending torn ACL. However, there was a consensus among bracketologists that if Rutgers could beat Michigan and play well against Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament they would earn their way into March Madness.
Coach Pikiell’s squad did just that, dominating the second half against Michigan that included a 15 minute stretch in which the Wolverines did not make a field goal attempt. Rutgers fell to top seeded Purdue in the next round, losing 70-65. Purdue had 14 more free throw attempts and were whistled for 11 fewer fouls than the Knights, including a span of four seconds in which Rutgers was called for three fouls in the second half. The lopsided officiating was all that stood between Rutgers and a second win over a top four team in the nation, which would have cemented a first round bye in March Madness.
Following the game, the Big Ten Network panelists congratulated the Knights on a third consecutive postseason berth. There was no doubt that Rutgers would be in March Madness, the only question was whether or not they would have to play in the First Four in Dayton. Even ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the so-called “father of bracketology”, had Rutgers in the “Last Four Byes” after their loss to Purdue.
Once Selection Sunday rolled around, anticipation mounted in and around Piscataway, but the selection show came and went without Rutgers hearing their name called. Arizona State, Nevada, Providence, Pitt and Mississippi State all were chosen ahead of the Scarlet Knights despite clearly inferior resumes:
Arizona State ranked 66th in the NET and 70th in KenPom. They had a Q4 loss to Texas Southern. They were 5-6 in Q1 opportunities. They had a 37 point loss to San Francisco.
Nevada ranked 39th in the NET, 43rd in KenPom and had two Q3 losses. However, they lost to Wyoming, UNLV, and San Jose St. to finish the season, all of which were non-tournament teams. They were 4-5 in Q1 opportunities.
Providence ranked 56th in the NET and 45th in KenPom. They were just 4-8 in Q1 opportunities. They also had a common opponent with Rutgers in Seton Hall, who they lost to by 24 on their home court on March 4th. Rutgers lost to Seton Hall by two and was the victim of a missed out of bounds call on the second to last possession that led to two Pirates points.
Pitt ranked 67th in the NET and 77th in KenPom. They had a Q4 loss to Florida State and a 27 point loss to Duke.
Mississippi State ranked 49th in the NET and 50th in KenPom. They were 4-8 in Q1 opportunities. They suffered a 23 point loss to Alabama in the SEC tournament and a 34 point loss to Tennessee.
For reference, Rutgers ranked 38th in the NET, 35th in KenPom, and were 4-7 in Q1 opportunities, which would be 5-6 if not for the referees completely botching the end of the Ohio State game in December. They owned the best win out of any team in this group, beating Purdue on the road in Mackey Arena. Rutgers did have four Q4 losses, but one was on a neutral site against Temple without Caleb McConnell and Paul Mulcahy and another recently becoming Q3 due to Seton Hall’s collapse against Depaul in the Big East Tournament.
Per bracketmatrix.com, which pools all bracketologists predictions together, 96% of all projections had Rutgers in the tournament. The Scarlet Knights were ahead of most of the bubble teams that I mentioned above in the bracket predictions.
It was inexcusable for the committee to leave Rutgers out.
I know now that you are thinking that the loss to Hofstra in the NIT solidifies the committee’s argument that Rutgers should not have made March Madness. To an extent, you may be correct. The game was truly a microcosm of the season, a sentiment that was echoed across multiple media outlets. The Knights got out to a quick start, dealt with some pushback, then straightened their game out in the second half, only to have their lead melt away and be left wondering what happened.
However, it was not the ending this team deserved. They fought until the end, doing everything they could to win the game and prolong their season. Cam Spencer and Derek Simpson willed the ball into the hoop, putting up 22 and 19, respectively. Caleb McConnell played strong defense and had an important putback dunk with under a minute to play in regulation.
When the final shot bounced away towards the sideline and the final buzzer sounded, it felt like all the air had left the arena. The shocked silence was deafening. Emotion washed over the players’ faces, as the realization that their season had ended hit them.
There were many shortcomings in the Scarlet Knights resume, no doubt about it. But their overall body of work was more than deserving of a March Madness berth, especially in comparison to those around them. Instead, a season filled with promise ends with a disappointing loss. The RU Screw, as students jokingly call navigating the bureaucracy of the university, had reared its ugly head once again, this time on the basketball court.
Congratulations to all the seniors on a wonderful career and their impact on the program. Caleb McConnell, the last of the trio of “Culture Changers” made an indelible mark on the program, leading the way with his relentless defensive effort. The program is on an upward trajectory due to the leadership of Coach Pikiell and the persistent contributions of everyone on the roster, regardless of the outcome of this season.