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Rutgers notes as March Madness approaches

It is no secret at this point that the Rutgers men’s basketball team is having a historically strong season. The Scarlet Knights (18-8, 9-6) are on the verge of their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1991. With that being said, their ticket to March Madness is not yet set in stone. Here’s what needs to happen for them to be picked on Selection Sunday, which is just under four weeks from now. 

WIN TWO MORE GAMES — 20 total wins is the magic number

With Rutgers having the nation’s hardest remaining schedule according to ESPN’s College Basketball Power Index (BPI) ranking system, this would normally seem like a tough task. This Knights' squad is far from a normal Rutgers team, though. Not only has it clinched its first winning season in 14 years, but it also has the country’s best home record at 17-0.

With 2 out of their 5 remaining regular season games being played at the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC), the Knights can punch their ticket to March Madness by taking care of business in Piscataway, New Jersey. 

Don’t depend on the RAC advantage

Rutgers should not simply bank on winning home games, though. 

The Knights “can lock up the program’s first Big Dance berth since 1991 with wins over Michigan at home Wednesday and at Wisconsin Sunday," said Jerry Carino, journalist of the Asbury Park Press. "Even a 1-1 split would put the Knights in great shape for the homestretch, although the road victory is preferable for a team that is just 1-8 away from the RAC this season,” Carino said.

While both of these upcoming games are difficult matchups, the two after are even harder on paper. Just three days after its road trip to play Wisconsin, Rutgers travels to face Penn State on Feb. 26. The No. 9 Nittany Lions (20-5, 10-4) are 13-1 at home and have a 74.5 percent chance to beat the Knights, according to ESPN’s BPI. It would be ideal for Rutgers to not have to depend too much on this game.

After that, the Knights host Maryland in their home finale on March 3. Even though Rutgers is undefeated at the RAC, it has not been flawless there. 

Remember these near-disasters?

The Jan. 25 win against Nebraska and the Feb. 9 win against Northwestern both come to mind. In the former, the Cornhuskers (7-18, 2-12) would have taken the Knights to overtime if it weren’t for junior guard Geo Baker’s game-winning three at the buzzer.

In the latter matchup, the Wildcats (6-18, 1-13) built an 18-point lead against Rutgers and would have won in regulation if Baker had not carried the team in the second half. The Knights escaped with a 77-73 overtime win thanks in large part to Baker’s 23 points after the first half.

Keep in mind that Northwestern and Nebraska are last and second-to-last in the Big Ten, respectively.

If those teams can nearly beat Rutgers at the RAC, then the No. 7 Terrapins (21-4, 11-3) certainly can. While the Knights have shown that they can dominate ranked teams at home, it would still be in their best interest to relieve any pressure of having to win this particular game. If anyone can upset them at the RAC, it’s Maryland, who is currently first place in the conference.

Go all-out these next two games

This all means that it is in Rutgers’ best interest to give it all it has over these next two games. With Isaiah Livers (13.3 points per game) back for Michigan, the Knights will have their work cut out for them. Livers was not active for the Wolverines (16-6, 7-7) when they defeated Rutgers at Madison Square Garden two weeks ago, so that adds another wrinkle to the matchup for the Knights.

The Badgers (15-10, 8-6) present a unique challenge for Rutgers. The Knights beat them 72-65 at the RAC back on Dec. 11, a victory that started a six-game win streak that catapulted them to national attention. Poetically, the rematch could be the game where Rutgers punches its ticket to the Big Dance. 

It would not only add a much-needed second road win to its resume, but it would also be either its 10th or 11th conference win (depending on the result of tomorrow's game). With the Big Ten being received by many as the best league in the country, double-digit conference wins would be hard for the selection committee to gloss over.

With that being said, Wisconsin is 11-1 at home. As the Knights have been reminded time and time again this season, Big Ten road wins are hard to come by. In order to win, they will need to stay true to their roots: win the rebounding battle and play suffocating defense inside. If they can do those things, there is a good chance that Rutgers will go dancing in March.

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

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