Rutgers Basketball Season Preview
On Wednesday 11/10, Rutgers Scarlet Knights Men’s Basketball will tip off their season against the Lehigh Mountain Hawks in the newly named Jersey Mike’s Arena (formerly the Rutgers Athletic Center nicknamed the RAC). The Knights enter the 2021-22 season under the leadership of Steve Pikiell, who is entering his 6th year as head coach. Rutgers is currently riding a sell out streak of 12 games which is set to extend to at least 15, with the first three games already sold out. Five Big Ten games are also already sold out, with many more to follow.
This season, the Knights are led by Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr, who both entered their names into the 2021 NBA draft before deciding to withdraw in favor of one last season in Piscataway. During his career at Rutgers, Baker has averaged 11.1 points per game and 3.3 assists per game, making him an important asset for the Knights. Harper Jr. has averaged 11.4 points per game in his Rutgers career, including 14.9 last season. However, what makes these two players most valuable is their star presence and leadership on the floor.
The Knights will be opening their season with 3 home games vs Lehigh, Merrimack, and NJIT. They will then travel to Chicago to take on DePaul, come back home for Lafayette, and then travel to Amherst, Massachusetts to face UMass. This stretch could easily result in a 6-0 start heading into a nationally televised game against Clemson at home in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Rutgers beat Clemson last year in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Retaining two star players, and much of the core could result in an undefeated Knights team going into the first conference game at Illinois.
Illinois is a great team led by NBA prospect Kofi Cockburn. There’s a lot of time between now and this game, but Illinois has a good chance to be the first team to defeat the Knights this season. The second conference game of the season will be a matchup with Purdue at Jersey Mike’s Arena. Purdue is another great basketball team and will be a challenge for Rutgers. However, with a crowd full of Rutgers fans yearning to get back into the “Trapezoid of Terror”, anything can happen.
Rutgers will then travel to Newark for the Garden State Hardwood Classic against Seton Hall. Seton Hall will be a solid team this year and definitely will not be a pushover for the Knights. Next, Rutgers will travel back to Piscataway as they will take on Rider, Central Connecticut State, and Maine to finish non-conference play for the 2021-22 season. Rutgers will have a realistic shot to finish non-conference play unscathed at 11-0, as they should be better than every team they face. However, mistakes are bound to happen during a long season, and Knights fans should expect their squad to finish with a non-conference record of about 9-2 or 10-1.
As the Knights fully enter conference play, they will stay home to face the best and worst teams in the conference in Michigan and Nebraska, respectively. Michigan finished last season at 23-5, including an NCAA Tournament Elite 8 appearance where they fell to UCLA. Nebraska finished last season with a 7-20 record earning the bottom spot in the Big Ten Tournament where they were a first round exit. Rutgers will likely go 1-1 in these games.
Rutgers’ path back to the NCAA Tournament will not be easy this year as Michigan, Purdue, Illinois, Ohio State, and Maryland all cracked the preseason AP Top 25. Michigan State and Indiana were also the 26th and 27th ranked teams in the nation. Rutgers will play 11 of their 20 conference games against these teams. Rutgers was the only other team in the conference to receive votes in the preseason AP Poll.
In conference play, Rutgers will be tested and could lose more than they win in the last half of the season. I’d put their conference ceiling at 15-5 and their floor at 7-13. The Big Ten is a tough conference, but Rutgers will be a great team this season. It should be fun to see how things pan out.
My prediction for this season is a 21-10 regular season record earning the 6 seed for the Big Ten Tournament. Rutgers will win one game and make it to the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, before earning a spot in the NCAA Tournament as a low seed. Rutgers will win a game in the round of 64 and their season will end in the round of 32 with a final record of 23-12.
Watch the Rutgers Scarlet Knights open their season against the Lehigh Mountain Hawks at Jersey Mike’s Arena on B1G+ this Wednesday 11/10.