One of the B1G's new members had the equipment to not only compete, but contend right away on the hardwood. And because of that, Maryland will come much later in this series. But now we examine the betrodden roadkill that was the Scarlet Knights men's basketball team for most of this season, with one bizarre, shining exception.
The Maybe This Won't Be So Awful Phase: Non-conference and Early B1G
Rutgers' season started with something of a thud, losing to not only a middling George Washington team but also getting stunned at home by St. Peter's, an outfit which would go 8-12 in the MAAC (note: NOT the MAC, but the MAAC with two A's) and finish below .500 overall. It wasn't close, either, as the Peacocks
...anyway, as the Peacocks trampled Rutgers by an 18-point margin. Rutgers also wheezed out 26 points in a suffocation by Virginia, got blown out by uninspiring instate foe Seton Hall, and choked on another cupcake with a 5-point home loss to St. Francis of the NEC, another .500 squad from a lower-rung conference.
The non-con wasn't all bad news, though. Rutgers did its part in the B1G/ACC challenge with a win over Clemson, and prevailed over Vanderbilt which I think used to be pretty good for a hot minute there maybe. The Scarlet Knights also beat Manhattan, who made the First Four of the NCAAs. So, that's something.
Still, the first few games of the conference schedule confirmed this was not going to be a difficult opponent for most of the B1G. Against by far the easiest 3-game stretch of the conference slate (NW, PSU, @Neb), Rutgers managed to land a victory over Penn State alone. Mustering just 49 points against a nondescript Nebraska team couldn't have done much to engender confidence with the big, bad Badgers coming to the RAC.
Whoops, hang on. Frank Kaminsky's out with a concussion. Well, that shouldn't matter, Wisconsin- oops, now Traevon Jackson is hurt, too. And Wisconsin is going 5-21 from deep in the RAC's weird gym. Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack combined for 41 points, and the Scarlet Knights took a morningstar to Wisconsin's RPI.
WOOOOOOOOO! Optimism, right? Clutch play from a couple seniors, improved team defense, a home gym with bizarre sight lines that should throw off teams visiting for the first time- maybe this is a team that can ruin days for a few more opponents before the season is over, right?
The Oh, Yep, This Is As Awful As We Had Anticipated Phase: B1G Schedule
Wrong. That Wisconsin win was sure a great thing for Rutgers, but it came on January 11th. Here's how it went from there:
1/14 @ UMD, L 65-73
1/17 @ Minn, L 80-89
1/20 vs Mich, L 50-54
1/24 @ PSU, L 51-79
1/29 vs MSU, L 51-71
1/31 @ IU, L 64-72
2/3 @ UI, L 54-66
2/8 vs OSU, L 60-79
2/12 vs PU, L 51-61
2/19 @ Iowa, L 47-81
2/22 vs IU, L 54-84
2/26 @ PU, L 85-92
3/3 vs UMD, L 50-60
3/7 @ Mich, L 69-79
3/11 BTT @ Minn, L 68-80
They lost in all sorts of ways: blowouts, near-misses, track meets, wrestling matches. But for the last two months of Rutgers' season, every game had one thing in common: Loss. Loss. Loss. Loss. Loss. Loss. After January 11th, Rutgers had as many losses by at least 19 points (5) as by single digits, and three bludgeonings by at least 25.
Uhhh...Any Reason For Optimism?
Sure, there's always something. Although next year's prognosis probably has to start with the observations that the team's two best players, Myles Mack and Kadeem Jack, are both gone, and the presumed lodestar for 2015, Junior Etou, transferred a couple of weeks ago. So there's that.
Also, the conference is looking positively brutal next year. Wisconsin loses a lot but will at the very least have Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes to lean on. MSU, Maryland, OSU, and Indiana bring loaded recruiting classes to join rosters with plenty of talent already available. Purdue and Michigan were both very young and will return most of their upside-soaked rosters. Iowa and Illinois will both still be decisively more talented than Rutgers. Northwestern and Minnesota are both clearly trending upward under young coaches who are at least visibly creating the teams they want.
If you're counting, that's 11 teams with a minimum of a clear advantage over Rutgers for the present and the near future. To review, Rutgers loses its three best players. What help is on the way?
Well, if anyone in the pipeline is going to change Rutgers' fortunes, Corey Sanders is the safest bet. He's the headliner of an otherwise-unremarkable 4-man class, and Rutgers badly needs him to at least fill Mack's shoes next year and beyond if they want to be competitive. Rutgers is still looking for more help, so don't rule out the addition of extra scoring punch that isn't yet available.
Examining the rest of the roster, Bishop Daniels is by default the best returning player, but there's not much competition for that title. G Mike Williams and F/C Greg Lewis are the only other guys who appear to have seen consistent action. Without large steps forward from those three and Sanders being ready to immediately shoulder large minutes, it's tough to expect much progress in the W/L column next season.
Of course, the Mike Rice fiasco looms large over everything Eddie Jordan has done and failed to do in his tenure at Rutgers thus far. But that episode, nasty as it was, did not result in scholarship reductions, or a postseason ban, or anything of the sort. There's also the matter of Rutgers' facilities lagging far behind most of the B1G, and though there's chatter about upgrades, chatter ain't going to get a single recruit's attention. Ergo, it's fair for Rutgers fans to wonder how much better their program could be, were the proper investments to be made. But daydreaming isn't going to change the program's current dire reality.