Something had to give on Wednesday night at the Rutgers Athletic Center. Rutgers entered its game against Michigan with a 17-0 home record, and Michigan knew its 12-0 record against Rutgers would be on the line against a much improved Rutgers team at the RAC.
For sure, the Scarlets Knights felt good about their chances to beat Michigan. This is by far their best shot to beat them being that they were at home and favored to win this one. They knew they should have beaten Michigan at Madison Square Garden on Feb. 1, which they took a 69-63 loss after struggling to shoot down the stretch. They figured it would be different. First-year Michigan coach Juwan Howard stressed that to his players.
At the RAC, teams tend to wilt by the raucous fans that infiltrate the place while Rutgers feed off from their energy. Bryant, Niagara, Drexel, Stephen F. Austin, NJIT, UMass, Wisconsin, Seton Hall, Lafayette, Caldwell College, Penn State, Indiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, Purdue, Northwestern and Illinois can testify since it all served as Rutgers’ 17 victims at home this season. Rutgers won 17 of its 18 games at home this season.
Certainly, everything favored Rutgers, right? Wrong. The Wolverines extended their winning streak against Rutgers to 13 games after a 60-52 victory over Rutgers, who took its first home loss of the season.
All good things must come to an end for Rutgers. It was fun while it lasted.
Still, it hurts for the Scarlet Knights for so many reasons. For one thing, it was a chance to show Michigan they are going to be a thorne in their side for years to come. Second of all, they have to play three of their next four games on the road in places such as Madison, State College and West Lafayette, which features rematches against Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue in the games they beat them at the RAC earlier this year. Third, they have to play the best team in the Big Ten in Maryland in their final home game of what has been an overachieving season.
Add it up, and Rutgers could be sweating it out for its bid of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991. Right now, the Knights should be in according to most bracketologists. But things fluctuate. A five-game losing streak can change the conversation altogether. It’s not out of the question they could lose their remaining games in the schedule. If that happens, they would not only lose five in a row, but lose eight of ten heading to the Big Ten tournament. That would not be a good way to impress the committee, and this gives bubble teams a chance to be in the conversation.
This rare home loss shouldn’t be the start of doom for the Scarlet Knights, but no one knows if they can beat Wisconsin, Penn State and Purdue on the road based on their 1-6 road record. The committee would like to see them beat some tough teams on the road to show their playoff worth.
Maybe this becomes a good thing for this program. It can rally the players together, and it can improve the team’s development. For them to be perennially good, winning games on the road can make such a difference. It would show how tough they can be. It’s easy to be tough at home, but a mark of a tough team is finding ways to win on the road.
This means Rutgers needs to shoot better and score in the second half, which was not the case against Michigan. The Scarlet Knights shot only 23.5 percent and scored 21 points in that half, and they shot just 3-of-18 from the 3-point line the entire game. Geo Baker struggled despite receiving good looks to shoot, and he scored four of his 16 points in the second half. Ron Harper Jr. and Montez Mathis did next to nothing when it mattered. To expect Paul Mulcahy to be the difference maker as a freshman is too much to ask, and he will be a good player for Rutgers based on what we saw when he received minutes this season.
Michigan deserves credit for taking advantage of Rutgers’ ice-cold shooting. They made the right passes, and they hit their shots. They played disciplined in the second half despite Rutgers fans screaming in their direction.
Rutgers can learn something from Michigan and apply it in the road games coming up. Of course, it’s easier said than done, but that’s why they play the games.
Maybe Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell was right about it was one of those nights that shots couldn’t fall, but Rutgers could not afford to have this happening at this time of the season where wins become so important.
Again, this loss doesn’t have to make or break Rutgers’ chances of making the tournament, but it can if it does not win at least two of its four remaining games.
Maybe things even out in the end. Rutgers must hope now.
The Scarlet Knights boast 18 wins, so if they can win a game or two, they should be in.
Beating Michigan at their court could have made it easier rather than have them do it the hard way away from the RAC.