Rutgers Men's Basketball has earned the right to play their way into the NCAA March Madness tournament as an 11 seed, and it all comes down to a single game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Let's look at the journey to this point.
How the Scarlet Knights Arrived Here
Rutgers 2021-22 season has been a little streaky on paper, but certainly not without its moments.
Starting the season with three straight wins was strong until they lost five of their next seven, though one of those wins was arguably their most electric of the season: beating a number one ranked Purdue team at the buzzer.
HALFCOURT SHOT AT THE BUZZER TO BEAT THE NO. 1 TEAM
Ron Harper Jr. 🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/WuIe4mOWeh
— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) December 10, 2021
This was immediately followed up by a resurgent six wins out of seven games, with several double-digit margins of victory.
Rutgers then faced a gauntlet of five top-16 ranked opponents in a two-week February stretch; they won four in a row, beating Illinois to become the first team in NCAA history to achieve four straight ranked wins as an unranked team.
This included another standout victory on #14 Wisconsin's home floor, a six-steal performance by Caleb McConnell.
Despite the highs, the Scarlet Knights are not a "hot" team coming into the play-in game.
They went on to lose rematches to Purdue and Wisconsin, and Iowa would take them down in the Big-10 Tournament just a few days ago.
At 18-13, Rutgers has to win one more game to solidify their berth in the tournament for just the second time since 1991, and their first back-to-back appearances since 1975-76.
Who's Doing the Heavy Lifting?
In 31 games, Senior forward Ron Harper Jr. (featured in the video above) led the Scarlet Knights in scoring 16 times. He's averaged a team-high 15.6 points per game shooting 43% from the field, and just under 40% from three-point range.
Harper Jr., an All-Big-10 second team selection, is their best scoring option. He's attempted over 70 more free throws than anyone not named Cliff Omoruyi, and leads the team in FT% to back it up.
Omoruyi, the Nigerian-born sophomore center, is the leading rebounder at just under eight per game with an affinity for posters. His scoring has been up in the second half of the season, as well.
— Rutgers On BTN (@RutgersOnBTN) March 11, 2022
Here’s the monster dunk from Cliff Omoruyi: pic.twitter.com/dsWwy84n2w
— Brian Fonseca (@briannnnf) February 2, 2022
There's plenty to be said about senior guard Caleb McConnell, voted the Big-10 defensive player of the year after averaging more than two steals per game.
This is Rutgers' first DPOY since Hamady N'Diaye in 2010.
McConnell had 30 steals against ranked opponents this year (nine games), a pace of over three per game, perhaps none bigger or more impactful than this:
— The Sports Throne (@SportsThroneHub) February 10, 2022
We haven't yet mentioned All-Big-10 third team guard Geo Baker, who finished second on the team in scoring and assists, averaging about 12 and four respectively.
He's very active in the community and incredibly easy to root for. The senior hosted a Rutgers fan voice chat party on Discord to celebrate Rutgers' selection results on the 13th, and expressed how far the program has come since winning just three conference games his freshman year.
He and Harper Jr. are the team's first two-time all-Big selections in 29 years.
What's the Key to Beating Notre Dame?
Notre Dame is favored by a point in the betting lines, with Rutgers being a +100 pick for the money line.
The Irish have just one win against a ranked opponent this season: #10 Kentucky, over four months ago on December 11.
They have much better shooters than Rutgers; Dane Goodwin and Nate Laszewski hit 44.8 and 46 percent of their threes, respectively, and we can expect to see them take about eight threes combined using their attempt averages.
Guards Cormac Ryan and Trey Wertz are also shooting threes at almost 40%. Rutgers only comparable shooter (with more than 12 attempts) is Ron Harper, Jr. Nobody else clears 35%.
Overall, Notre Dame fired off over 200 more threes than Rutgers did, and they obviously hit at a much higher clip. That is going to have to be a point of emphasis defensively for the Scarlet Knights.
What Is The History Here?
Notre Dame and Rutgers are headed for their first ever meeting in an NCAA Tournament setting.
All-time, Rutgers is 6-8 in tournament games to the Fighting Irish's 38-40, though neither has ever won the Championship and have an equal number of Final Four appearances.
It's also the lowest Notre Dame has ever been seeded, should they move on.
Sadly, this will be the last Rutgers run for Baker, Harper, and McConnell as all three are seniors.
The winner of this game will play sixth seeded Alabama in San Diego, California, in the Round of 64. Here is a pretty complete history of what 11-seeds have done in the tournament all-time, from the NCAA website.
In short, the 11-seed has had quite a lot of success recently. In the last ten years, those teams are actually 23-21 over 6-seeds.
Last season, UCLA was an 11-seed playing in the First Four and made their way to the Final Four before losing to Gonzaga via Jalen Suggs' famous overtime winner.
Catch this First Four matchup Wednesday night at 9:10 PM.