Rutgers surging toward its first NCAA Tournament bid since 1991

The Rutgers Scarlet Knights men’s basketball program hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1991.

However, the 2019-20 squad appears set to end that nearly three-decade stretch of mediocrity. Steve Pikiell’s team improved to 14-4 straight up and 12-4-1 against the spread with Sunday’s 64-56 win over Minnesota as a 5.5-point home ‘chalk.’

As usual, it was all about RU’s defense. The Scarlet Knights forced the Gophers to shoot 36.0 percent from the field and 32.0 percent from 3-point land. They dominated Minnesota on the glass with a 42-30 rebounding advantage.

Rutgers used a balanced scoring attack, with Montez Mathis, Jacob Young and Ron Harper Jr. scoring 11 points apiece. Caleb McConnell added a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds.

Pikiell’s team has covered the number in nine straight games. The Scarlet Knights are 5-2 in Big Ten play, leaving them in a second-place tie with Illinois and one back of the conference’s leader, Michigan State.

RU’s only losses in league play have come at Michigan State (77-65) and at Illinois (54-51). The Scarlet Knights took the cash in both instances, though, as 14.5 and five-point road underdogs, respectively.

Rutgers has seen the ‘under’ hit in seven straight games. The Scarlet Knights are ranked seventh in the nation in scoring defense, limiting opponents to 58.7 points per game. They’re ranked No. 6 nationally in field-goal percentage defense (36.4%) and No. 33 at defending the 3-point line (29.2%).

Rutgers is ranked No. 24 at KenPom, compiling a 5-2 record in seven games against foes ranked in KenPom’s Top 40. The Scarlet Knights own quality scalps at home over Minnesota (No. 36), Indiana (No. 40), Penn State (No. 28), Seton Hall (No. 10) and Wisconsin (No. 22).

Even better, Rutgers won those five games by margins of seven points or more. The Scarlet Knights dropped PSU by a 72-61 count and trounced the Pirates, 68-48.

RU’s two defeats in non-conference play came at Pittsburgh (No. 67) and vs. St. Bonaventure (No. 117) on a neutral court in Toronto.

Rutgers certainly still has work to do. In fact, the Scarlet Knights own just one road win (79-62 at No. 135 Nebraska). They can change that Wednesday at No. 15 Iowa. All but two of RU’s 13 remaining games are against teams in KenPom’s Top 35.

KenPom’s projections have Rutgers finishing the regular season with a 21-10 overall record and a 12-8 mark in Big Ten play.

Now certainly, things can happen. However, barring a rash of injuries or just a complete collapse, the Scarlet Knights are heading to the NCAA Tournament. Furthermore, if they remain in their current form, they could be dancing beyond the first weekend of the 68-team tourney.

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