The Rutgers men’s basketball team hasn’t made an appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 1991, a 25-year drought going on its 26th.
Despite the signs of progress during their first year under head coach Steve Pikiell, nothing short of a Big Ten Tournament title would suffice for the Scarlet Knights to reach the pinnacle of college basketball.
But as long as the streak has lasted, it is far from the longest among Rutgers’ conference peers.
Northwestern (19-7, 8-5), who the Knights (13-14, 2-12) face Saturday in Evanston, is one of the five current Division I programs to never reach the Big Dance, coming up short each and every year since 1939.
In chasing the peak of college basketball came a plethora of valleys for the Wildcats.
Six consecutive seasons of going 2-16 in Big Ten play with a winless 0-18 campaign as the exclamation mark of a 6-114 record over a seven year period during the 1980s, the lowest record in the program’s history.
Fast forward to the current decade, one split between Bill Carmody and current coach Chris Collins at the helm, and the Wildcats are on a fast track to an ascension to the program’s peak. This season is set to be the first time Wildcat fans will end up saying is the year.
Northwestern is all but guaranteed to break the drought in what is promising to be the greatest year in program history. The Wildcats are 19-7 through 26 games, two wins short of setting a team record in single-season wins with five chances to go.
They beat everyone they should have in their non-conference schedule, falling a possession short at No. 24 Butler and two short against No. 25 Notre Dame in their only non-Big Ten losses.
Northwestern won 7 of its first 9 conference games, remaining in the hunt for the regular season conference title it never won and peaking at No. 25 in the Associated Press (AP) poll, the first time it was named since 2009.
Barring a monumental collapse by a program who has seen a few in its day, the Wildcats will finally be among the 68 teams named on Selection Sunday.
That’s where Rutgers comes in.
The Knights are playing for little more than pride and development in the final stretch of the regular season, with a bid to any postseason tournaments needing a historic run through the Big Ten Tournament to achieve.
Becoming the owner of the longest NCAA Tournament drought in the conference, which would happen if Northwestern gets the bid, would surely be a hit to that pride.
Winning the contest in Welsh-Ryan Arena this Saturday wouldn’t completely crush the Wildcats dreams, but it would add serious steam to an improbable skid.
The Wildcats are on their worst stretch of the season since receiving a spot in the AP Poll, dropping three of their last four contests, including a bad loss to Illinois at home.
Yes, the win in that stretch was a signature upset of No. 10 Wisconsin in Madison, but it would not be enough to salvage a season-ending skid with two losses to the Illini and one to the Knights — the two worst teams in the conference — mixed in.
Most will point towards a home game against Rutgers as the antidote, but if the first meeting of the season between the sides is to be taken into account, it might be more closely contested than expected.
Despite the 31.9 percent clip, Rutgers kept the game close by locking down Bryant McIntosh (6 points, four assists, two rebounds) in one of his worst performances of the season.
Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey picked up the slack with 23 and 14 points, respectively, but the Wildcats will likely be without the latter on Saturday. Lindsey has missed the last four games with mononucleosis and, even if he returns, he wouldn’t be at full strength.
On the offensive end, the Knights have steadily improved in their shooting since that meeting a month ago, reaching a height in the first half of their last outing.
Rutgers was on fire in the opening 20 minutes against No. 16 Purdue on Tuesday, shooting at a 6-for-11 clip from downtown en route to a 40 percent night.
It didn’t matter in the end as the Boilermakers blew out the Knights with their height and talent, but it was a glimpse at what Rutgers could do when it heats up.
Despite being down by double-digits, the Knights played hard defense until the final buzzer sounded in West Lafayette, showing the desire they’ve become known for under Pikiell.
Saturday is a must-win game for Northwestern — the same can’t be said for Rutgers. But with history on the line and a chance to crash the Wildcats’ party, expect an atmosphere you’d expect in March in Evanston.