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Analyzing Rutgers' Big Ten, NCAA scenarios

Following this past Saturday’s dramatic Senior Day win over Michigan, the Rutgers men's lacrosse team has officially clinched a top-four finish in the Big Ten standings, earning a spot in the Big Ten Tournament with a game to play. 

For the Scarlet Knights (7-6, 2-2), the immediate question heading into the last week of the season is who they will face in the semifinals next Thursday. Rutgers currently sits in third place heading into the final weekend, with losses to No. 2 Maryland and No. 4 Johns Hopkins in conference play. 

Big Ten Tournament Seeding 

The last chance for the Knights to boost their record before the tournament will come on Saturday afternoon, when they travel to University Park, Pennsylvania to take on No. 1 Penn State, who is undefeated through four Big Ten games. The Nittany Lions (11-1, 4-0) have taken college lacrosse by storm with an uptempo, high-efficiency attack led by Grant Ament and Mac O’Keefe.

If Rutgers manages to take down Penn State in the finale and Johns Hopkins beats Maryland, it will finish with a Big Ten record of 3-2 and clinch fourth in the conference, setting up a rematch with Happy Valley's team.

Maryland mounted a late comeback in a 16-13 win over the Knights two weeks ago at HighPoint.com Stadium, but Rutgers played a stellar half of lacrosse and showed that it could contain elite attackers Logan Wisnauskas and Jared Bernhardt.

NCAA Tournament At-Large Bid

The ultimate goal for the Knights remains unchanged, and it's to qualify for the program’s first NCAA Tournament in 15 years. There are two paths that lead to that outcome at this point. They either win the Big Ten Tournament outright and earn an automatic bid, or try to earn one of the seven at-large bids awarded by the Selection Committee on May 5.

While an automatic bid is the most straightforward path to the tournament, winning two straight games against ranked opponents will be a tall task for Rutgers, which has a 1-5 record against top-20 teams. Although it has the talent and potential to defeat any team in the country, it has yet to demonstrate the consistency needed to take home a Big Ten title.

This leaves a more complicated and daunting alternative. The Knights wait for Selection Sunday and let their resumes do the talking. While Rutgers has struggled when facing ranked opponents, it has an upset over then-No.4 Ohio State and quality unranked wins against teams like Princeton under its belt. 

As a result, the Knights are currently ranked 22nd in the country in the RPI rankings. Using last year’s tournament field as a guideline, the lowest-ranked RPI team to receive an at-large from the Selection Committee was Villanova at 12. If the season ended today, Rutgers would be on the outside looking in.

That being said, qualifying for the Big Ten Tournament offers the Knights a chance to improve their resumes, as they will almost certainly face a top 2 opponent in the semifinal. If they can make it to the title game — and/or upset the Lions in the regular season finale — Rutgers could use an impressive finish to force the committee to give it a serious look on Selection Sunday.

While the danger of missing a home-field Big Ten Tournament no longer looms over the Knights, they still find themselves on the outside looking in regarding postseason scenarios. 

With the conference tournament bid locked up, it’s crucial for Rutgers to show up against a big time team and prove that it belongs with the best in college lacrosse.

For updates on the Rutgers men's lacrosse team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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