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The Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Historically Bad Basketball Seasons

I don't mean to pile on, but the numbers intrigued me.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

One of the first college basketball games I remember going to in person was not a Nebraska Cornhuskers Basketball game, but rather a Creighton Bluejays basketball game. I know, almost sacrilegious, but we lived north of Omaha, and getting to Lincoln on the family budget was not in the cards. It also helped that Creighton tickets were extremely cheap - see, free - because of just how incredibly bad they were. I was probably 9 years old or so and all I can picture was just a really poor team fundamentally. No one was there. Nobody cared. It was just kind of sad.

Now, you are probably sitting there thinking to yourself, "Jesse, you watch Nebrasketball. The team that has not won a NCAA tournament game. The team that employed Doc Sadler for far too long. The team that wasted Tyronn Lue. The team that only brings you sadness. etc. etc." You would be correct, and really, the point of that story above was twofold. 1) LOL Creighton. You wonder why I chose Nebrasketball at an early age, and 2) From an early age, I basically only knew terrible college basketball. So as I transition into the point of this post, I'd like to at least establish that as far as bad basketball goes, I am somewhat of an expert. You know, if expertise is determined by years of watching and living through it.

All of that in mind, after Rutgers literally allowed more rebounds (62) than they scored points (57) against Purdue, the OTE writing team put its collective minds together to talk about if this might be the worst season by a Big Ten team ever. It was decided that it had to be, and that we would even allow for Nebraska and Penn State before their Big Ten entrance. Surely having two record breaking home losses in a week was enough to be considered the worst team ever, right? Well, sorta.

It turns out that rating a team year to year is an inexact science. Do you go by straight Win/Loss? Do you go by point margin? Do you want to go through the effort of being in charge of figuring out that point margin? Can you put a price on allowing 62 rebounds in a game? There were just a lot of factors and because I wanted to quantify things, I settled on one. The Sports Reference SRS (Simple Ratings System) score. Now, I thin that they would be the first to tell you that this is an imperfect reference point, but something is better than nothing and it gives us at least a lens from which to analyze things.

In case you did not click on that link to explain SRS, basically it's a system that takes into account average point differential and strength of schedule, then plots it above/below average. It's not too complicated, but it gives context to your team and more or less ends up ignoring wins/losses overtly (although obviously a hugely negative point differential is indicative of, you know, losing a ton of games). As of today, January 19, Rutgers has a -6.94 SRS. That is bad. It would arguably be worse if Rutgers SOS wasn't as high as it is, but that's sort of a different problem for a different day.

So, with -6.94 as a baseline of awful, here are all of the B1G schools to record a score at or around that level. Turns out this isn't necessarily the worst effort... yet. You have to remember that Rutgers has a couple of months to sink to that level. For varying reasons, SRS* only goes back to 1950, so if you can think of a team worse than these teams, great, but that's our dataset. Let's take a look at all of the teams that finished with a worst SRS than Rutgers and work backwards:

*All Data from Sports Referece via:

School Season W L W-L% SRS
1 1955-56 3 15 0.167 -32.15
2 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1954-55 2 22 0.083 -22.19
3 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1963-64 5 17 0.227 -20.94
4 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1957-58 7 15 0.318 -20.84
5 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1956-57 8 15 0.348 -18.71
6 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1962-63 7 16 0.304 -18.35
7 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1959-60 11 14 0.440 -15.65
8 1949-50 7 18 0.280 -14.22
9 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1950-51 R 7 14 0.333 -14.15
10 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1958-59 9 15 0.375 -13.50
11 1994-95 5 22 0.185 -12.61
12 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1961-62 10 13 0.435 -12.32
13 Maryland Terrapins 1950-51 15 10 0.600 -12.17
14 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1951-52 6 13 0.316 -11.25
15 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1960-61 11 10 0.524 -11.22
16 1955-56 12 14 0.462 -10.40
17 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1952-53 8 13 0.381 -10.24
18 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1987-88 7 22 0.241 -9.69
19 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1985-86 8 21 0.276 -9.13
20 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1964-65 12 12 0.500 -8.93
21 1958-59 3 19 0.136 -8.82
22 Michigan State 1949-50 4 18 0.182 -8.28
23 Penn State Nittany Lions 1969-70 13 11 0.542 -7.74
24 1959-60 4 20 0.167 -7.71
25 Penn State Nittany Lions 1967-68 10 10 0.500 -7.57
26 Penn State Nittany Lions 1983-84 5 22 0.185 -7.56
27 Penn State Nittany Lions 1984-85 8 19 0.296 -7.52
28 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 1953-54 11 13 0.458 -7.03
29 Rutgers Scarlet Knights 2015-16 6 13 0.316 -6.94

Oh Rutgers... Oh no.

Look, Nebraska basketball has never reached quite as high as a win in the NCAA tournament, so it's not like we have a pedestal to shout from, but this is not ideal. Remember, SRS is all about rating how a season for a team was in context. It is not supposed to say 1954 Indiana is better than say, any modern team. Really, the goal is just to understand how bad a season is in context of that year of basketball, and Rutgers has had some real bombs throughout their history. As of right now, you can see there are 28 seasons worse than Rutgers is currently. Unfortunately a whopping 17/28 historically bad teams belong to the Scarlet Knights. In fact, if you want to extrapolate further - and here is that dataset to play with -Rutgers is home to 28 of the 115 negative SRS scores posted by current Big Ten members. That is staggering. Roughly a quarter of the historically bad seasons belong to the basketball Scarlet Knights.

However, this is kind of losing site of the focus at hand. The most recent historically awful Big Ten Team is Northwestern who in 1994-95 posted a 5-22 record with a -12.61 SRS. They were outscored by 496 points to the tune of -18.4 PPG differential. As of right now, Rutgers is only a -10 PPG differential being outscored by 189 points over 19 games, but with the way things have gone in conference play - an average of -27.3 PPG differential - one must ask themselves if it is possible this will - at minimum - be the worst B1G season in the past 25 years. Obviously there are forces at play here with injuries, a cataclysmic athletic department, and moving to an even better conference, but this has the potential to be historically bad. I guess that is something worth keeping an eye on.