Rutgers basketball is in the process of rebuilding itself into a respectable program, but the team’s schedule could doom those hopes before the Scarlet Knights even hit the court.
For Scarlet Knights fans, no rehashing of the program’s recent history is needed or desired. Rutgers has never been a program among the nation’s elites, but it was at least a respectable one during the 1970s and 1980s. Unfortunately, Rutgers has failed to make the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and has won fewer than 20 games in each of the last 11 years.
Needless to say, it’s been a rough go around.
However, the good news is that Rutgers has started to build the depth and talent needed to be competitive nationally and in the Big Ten. Though head coach Eddie Jordan has just a 22-43 record with the program, he has been able to recruit and appears to have things heading in the right direction for the Scarlet Knights.
Related: Read about what Eddie Jordan is building at Rutgers.
Not only does Rutgers have three talented prospects in the team’s 2015 recruiting class, but among those recruits is four-star Corey Sanders. Though no freshman is a guarantee, Sanders is widely expected to be penciled in for a starting role and to be productive immediately.
On top of the traditional recruiting class, the Scarlet Knights are also bringing in talented JUCO forward Deshawn Freeman. Though it’s hard to put too much stock into Freeman’s time at the junior college level, his size, physicality, and scoring ability should get him minutes early and often with the Scarlet Knights.
Sure, Rutgers is losing a lot from last season in departed players like Junior Etou, Kadeem Jack, and Myles Mack, but on paper, this still looks like a deeper and more talented team than last year thanks to these new additions. The roster may be younger than last year’s Scarlet Knights, but that also means there could be more upside with this team.
But none of those improvements could matter next season thanks to a brutal schedule.
There are an incredible number of factors that impact sports teams in a given season. Players, coaches, injuries, and fan support are some of those factors, but perhaps one of the more consistently overlooked factors is scheduling. Who a team plays, when the team plays the opponent, and where the two teams play are incredibly important.
Unfortunately for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights are set to get an absolutely brutal slate in Big Ten play. Rutgers is certainly not the only team in the Big Tenwith a tough conference schedule, but for a program that’s looking to turn the corner, this schedule has the potential to derail all of that progress.
To put the difficulty of Rutgers’ schedule in perspective, simply consider the first nine games of conference play. During that period, every opponent the Scarlet Knights face will have made the NCAA Tournament in the last two years, seven will have made the NCAA Tournament in 2015, and six teams appear in Athlon Sports’ preseason top 25 rankings.
That’s beyond brutal.
Even if Rutgers is a better team on the court than last season, is it unreasonable to think that the Scarlet Knights open conference play with a 1-8 record or worse? If the preseason projections are accurate, the only games Rutgers might be favored in is at home against Iowa and Nebraska and the Scarlet Knights went 0-2 against those teams last season.
Admittedly, the latter half of the conference slate gets easier, but even then the Scarlet Knights will have four of nine games against teams that went to last year’s postseason. More importantly though, the question at that point will be whether Rutgers already lost too many games in the first half of Big Ten play to make the second half largely irrelevant.
There is a lot of hope in Piscataway going forward, but unfortunately, the Scarlet Knights could have a conference schedule that dooms even an improved Rutgers team this season. With such a brutal opening stretch, it has the possibility to derail even a season filled with promise.
The Scarlet Knights have potential, but unless the team can override a stacked conference slate, it could be an uphill battle all season.