Regional Sports

Sweet 16 for Rutgers? Why not?

Photo: Rutgers athletics

Everyone picks the Scarlet Knights to beat Clemson mainly because the ACC has not been impressive this season and the tough Big Ten conference serves them well by playing all these tough games in conference play.

I would be careful here. The Knights didn’t exactly finish the season strong, and Ron Harper Jr., Montez Mathis and Geo Baker struggled in the final few weeks. As confident as their fanbase feels about Clemson, one can make a case Clemson and its fanbase like the Tigers’ chance against the Scarlet Knights.

It’s a toss-up.

Give Rutgers the edge for two reasons: Coaching and defense.

Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell knows how to have his team prepared to play. Plus, he makes adjustments at halftime. He has a good feel for the game. Anytime a coach can win his fair share of Big Ten games, he should be considered a good coach. He won 21 Big Ten games in his last two seasons as coach.

He received rave reviews from his Big Ten peers for how well his team is coached and how his team can exploit matchups. When his guards struggled at times, he would make adjustments on the fly by focusing the offense around Myles Johnson.

Watching Rutgers play under Pikiell, his teams are rarely outplayed and outcoached. It’s why Rutgers built a foundation these last few years to be in this position.

If a coach can get his players to believe and listen, he can get success. Pikiell has the pulse of the players that believe in him.

Rutgers defense may not be the stingiest, but it’s effective. Rutgers appears as a Big Ten team because of its defensive identity. The Knights wear other players down by banging bodies. They know how to get rebounds and be quick to the loose balls. This is a rugged team that should give Clemson fits.

People can say the same about Clemson as a defensive team, but Rutgers’ Big Ten games should bode well for the tenth seed trying to pull off a win.

Despite Harper, Baker and Mathis struggling down the stretch, they can snap out of it. Maybe the tournament atmosphere gives them something extra. Maybe the pressure of being in the tournament can go away now that the team is in it, so that means now they can focus on playing well rather than feeling the pressure of ending that 30-year tournament drought.

If Rutgers can beat Clemson, it can beat Houston, too.

Yes, the Houston Cougars can score, and they are well-coached under Kelvin Sampson. Plus, Houston plays defense. But like Clemson, Sampson’s team played in a weak conference in the AAC. We really don’t know how good Houston is. Rutgers can make a case by its Big Ten education these last few months.

Sweet 16 shouldn’t be a crazy thought for Pikiell’s program. Rutgers has the best draw it can get unlike Maryland, who faces Connecticut right off the bat in the first round.

Now the Scarlets Knights can lose, but my gut feeling says they pull it off.

Pikiell believes. Why else would he tell his players what will they make of their tournament opportunity? He mentioned that to them after they celebrated their NCAA Tournament appearance at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Getting to the tournament is nice, but getting to the Sweet 16 would be better. Who knows? Maybe Rutgers can have that magic carpet ride to the Final Four. The story gets interesting as it goes along.

But it could all end tonight.

One thing for sure. Rutgers controls its destiny with the right bracket.

What the Knights do with it is up to them.

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