Rutgers basketball's NCAA Tournament bubble bursts in stunning snub
Last March, with its NCAA Tournament fate a coin flip on Selection Sunday, Rutgers basketball threw the doors open to friends of the program and media members for a watch party.
This year, the team hunkered down privately – just players, coaches, support staff and the TV screen. That’s in keeping with head coach Steve Pikiell’s mantra to “tune out the noise” during what has been a roller-coaster campaign.
That turned out to be a wise move, because unlike last year, the Scarlet Knights’ bubble burst on Sunday.
More:With Rutgers out of NCAA Tournament, here are some of the other biggest snubs in recent years
“Obviously a tough day," Pikiell told reporters. "Our goal every year is to go to the NCAA Tournament. Felt like we certainly did enough. It’s a tough job the selection committee has, and unfortunately they felt it wasn’t good enough.”
He added, “Proud of this team. This team has been great all year. Again, I thought we had a resume that stacked up with a lot of teams. Obviously they didn’t."
Their omission from the Big Dance came as a shock after the vast majority of bracketologists had them penciled into the field. In the end, the warts on Rutgers’ resume – principally four Quad 3 losses, an unprecedented amount for an at-large selection – held the day. A non-conference stretch of schedule ranked 342nd out of 363 teams surely didn’t help, either. Rutgers has played a soft non-conference schedule since Pikiell took the reins in 2016 but this is the first time it's broken against the Scarlet Knights in a tangible way.
Mag injury issue raised
An apparent focus by the NCAA Tournament's selection committee was the loss of glue-guy forward Mawot Mag, who went down with a torn ACL in early February. Rutgers was not the same team without him; the Scarlet Knights were 8-4 in the Big Ten at the time and went 2-6 for the rest of the regular season. The NCAA considers injuries when weighing the selection process and committee chair Chris Reynolds referenced Mag's injury while being interviewed on CBS right after the field was unveiled.
Asked about Reynolds' injury comment, Pikiell replied, “Again, you know they felt like our resume wasn’t good enough, but obviously that changed our team a little but. But I do think we did a lot this year; they’re supposed to look at our entire schedule, our entire body of work.”
Rutgers wasn't even the closest snub to the cut line, the selection committee revealed. That was Oklahoma State, which went 18-15 while navigating a loaded Big 12. Nevada (22-1) was the biggest surprise at-large inclusion. Most bracketologists had the Mountain West squad on the outside looking in.
Rutgers owned the best Kenpom ranking (35) of any team that didn't make the field, and the second-best NET ranking (40) behind North Texas (38).
Pikiell acknowledged his players' disappointment and added, "every (projected) bracket kind of had them in. I’m sure they were seeing that."
Once again, following a trend in recent years, the selection committee appears to have tuned out championship week as it pertains to at-large selection, meaning Rutgers Big Ten Tournament win over Michigan and hard-fought loss to top-seeded Purdue fell on deaf ears.
Shift in scheduling philosophy ahead?
In an interview with ESPN Radio, Reynolds cited Rutgers' non-conference schedule, specifically a lack of notable non-conference wins, as a hindrance. During Pikiell's post-selection show conference call with reporters, he was asked multiple times if the snub will spark a change in his non-conference scheduling philosophy.
“We were short a game obviously; we had some tough beaks, too," he said. "More importantly, if we stayed healthy all year, we were on a nice roll. You guys can debate all those things (like scheduling)."
He referenced December's controversial loss to Ohio State, after which the Big Ten admitted an officiating error. Apparently that admission had no impact on Rutgers' standing with the committee.
"We were one win away, could have been in league or could have been out of league," Pikiell said. "We were a little unlucky maybe. But we’ll look at everything like we do at the end of every year. You guys can nitpick those kind of things. We came up a little short.”
Asked about it a second time, Pikiell was more direct in his answer.
“We’ll figure out our schedule," he said. "I don’t think that had anything to do with today. Our numbers (metrics) were as high as they’ve been, much higher than last year. You’ve got to win enough games, whether it’s in conference or out of conference. Obviously they felt we didn’t.”
Embracing the NIT
So Rutgers (19-14) will appear in the NIT for the first time since 2006, hosting a game at Jersey Mike’s Arena. Rutgers earned a No. 1 seed and will play Hofstra on Tuesday (7 p.m., ESPNU) in the first round of the 32-team NIT field. Pikiell said he "absolutely" accepts the NIT bid without equivocation. Some teams, notably North Carolina and Texas Tech, opted out.
More:Three things to know about Hofstra, Rutgers' first-round NIT opponent
“I want Caleb (McConnell) and Paul (Mulcahy) and these guys to play as many games as they can," he said of his longest-tenured players. "I don’t want this season to end obviously. I’m not apologizing for postseason play here at Rutgers. Obviously our goal is the NCAA Tournament, but we’ll have to shift gears quickly here.
“Just thankful this group put us into a position to get an NCAA bid, and now we're going to have to take advantage of the NIT tournament. But they’re very disappointed right now – we have to get them up.”
It’s a bitter pill, but an opportunity for promising freshmen Derek Simpson and Antwone Woolfolk to continue to develop – and for the team to end the season on a positive note.
“You’ve got to be able to get your team off the mat," he said. "I played in the NIT myself as a player. We had an unbelievable run at UConn in 1988 (winning the title), one of the greatest experiences I’ve had in basketball. Today they don’t want to hear those things. But tomorrow we’ll get them in a room and try to make them understand that other teams are hanging up their uniforms. We’ve got a chance to keep playing as a group.
“This group has fought through a lot of obstacles these past four years. I expect them to keep fighting.”
Pikiell's disappointment for his players was evident in his voice.
“There’s not much you can say (to them)," he said. "Pick your head up, we’re going to have another opportunity to play and that’s a good thing. A lot of teams are putting the uniforms away. This is a good group. I want to coach them for as long as I can."
Jerry Carino has covered the New Jersey sports scene since 1996 and the college basketball beat since 2003. He is an Associated Press Top 25 voter. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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