No. 12 Rutgers opens Big Ten Tournament play vs. No. 13 Nebraska
After capping off its best season since joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Rutgers men’s basketball team takes its talents up to Chicago, Illinois tonight for the first round of the conference tournament. And if things are at all similar to last season’s tourney, then the madness of March may be starting early again.
The No. 12 Scarlet Knights (14-16, 7-13) finished the season 14-16, not showing an overall improvement record-wise compared to years past, but the real story lies in their performance in conference play.
For the first time in the new league, Rutgers won more than three conference games and in fact, more than doubled its previous record, finishing the season 7-13 — tied for 10th in the standings. They were predicted to finish 14th in the preseason, and earned the No. 12 seed in this year’s bracket.
Although the Knights came into the season as one of the youngest teams in the country, they still shot up the KenPom ranking system over the course of the season — Rutgers is the most improved Power 5 conference team this year, moving up 71 spots from November til now.
The noticeable improvement may come as a surprise to some, but to the Scarlet faithful and to those with a watchful eye, the jump was imminent from the end of last season’s Big Ten Tournament.
Again the No. 14 seed last year, the Knights erupted out of nowhere at Madison Square Garden to upset No. 11 seed Minnesota in head coach Steve Pikiell’s third game ever in the league tournament. Former Rutgers guard Corey Sanders put up big numbers of 23 points and seven rebounds to lead the Knights into the second round.
“This is my third year, and this is the best I've seen the league by far, from 1 through 14. I think anyone can go into this tournament,” Pikiell said, according to scarletknights.com after the regular season finale. “Teams are dangerous all across the board. This is by far the best I've seen the league. And it was really good in my first two years. Especially for a program like us that's fighting for everything.”
Last season, faced against No. 6-seeded Indiana, alumnus forward Deshawn Freeman and then-freshman guard Geo Baker provided Rutgers with an extra boost off the bench in a high-intensity matchup that came down to the final minutes.
Sanders poured in another 28 points to go along with 15 points each from Freeman and Baker to steal another victory at the Garden and advance past the Hoosiers in a shocking 76-69 win. The Knights were on a mission to prove they were more than just the bottom seed in this league.
Rutgers ultimately proved that in its final game of the tournament against No. 3 seed Purdue, where the near-Cinderella story came to an end. Despite a breakout performance from Baker (25 points) and another 23 from Sanders, the Boilermakers overcame a halftime deficit to come back and beat the Knights, 82-75.
But still, Rutgers made its mark and set the stage for what was — all things considered — a successful 2018-2019 campaign. Its seven conference wins are the most in a season in 13 years, when it also won seven games during the 2005-2006 schedule as members of the Big East.
Baker was named a unanimous All-Big Ten Honorable Mention for his play this season, while junior forward Eugene Omoruyi was named to the list made by the media. Both set to return next year for what could be an even more groundbreaking year.
The Knights will face No. 13 seed Nebraska tonight in Chicago for a shot to take on No. 5-seeded Maryland tomorrow. The Cornhuskers (16-15, 6-14) enter the matchup with Third-Team All-Big Ten guard James Palmer Jr., who averaged 19.1 points and 3.1 assists per game this season, ready to go.
The last time these two squads saw each other was back at the end of January in the first game back from winter break. Rutgers pulled off a come-from-behind 76-69 win with the help of true freshman guard Montez Mathis (20 points and nine rebounds), Baker (16 points) and redshirt freshman forward Myles Johnson (13 points and 11 rebounds).
“I know we are going to have to play a lot better basketball in the tournament. It's 40 minutes, or your season is over,” Pikiell said.
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