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Rutgers builds excitement ahead of March Madness

 – Photo by Curstine Guevarra

To say it’s been a dream start for Rutgers men’s basketball is an understatement. At 11 games over .500, the Scarlet Knights (16-5, 7-3) are exceeding the expectations of almost every observer. 

As head coach Steve Pikiell likes to remind his players, they were projected to finish 12th in the Big Ten at the start of the season.

As Pikiell also likes to remind the media, Rutgers plays in the toughest basketball conference in the country – the Big Ten. Year in and year out, the Knights have had to face off against perennial college basketball powers like Michigan State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana and Maryland.  

The conference is tough enough most years, but this season it’s especially tough. Some bracketologists have as many as 12 Big Ten teams in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today.

That is what makes the improbable run that's taking place on the Banks right now even more remarkable. Rutgers doesn’t have an easy path to the dance floor by any means, though. The Knights’ remaining slate ranks third in the country in strength of schedule, according to ESPN’s Basketball Power Index.

That includes a brutal stretch toward the end of the season, when Rutgers will play three of its last four games on the road, all against probable tournament teams (the Badgers, Penn State and Purdue).

The lack of a road win against a quality opponent remains a glaring resume hole for the Knights. The only win away from home this year for Rutgers came in early January against Nebraska, which is classified as an unimpressive Quad III win in terms of bracketology.

The Knights will have a golden opportunity to get at least a neutral site win this weekend, when they take on the Wolverines from Madison Square Garden. Michigan started the year red hot under first-year head coach Juwan Howard, but has dropped four straight and will come off a tough midweek road trip.

Rutgers' 15-0 home start (which is now the best home record in the country for Division I schools) has given them some leeway, though. Barring a major collapse, the Knights just need to steal a road game or two to have a bulletproof shot at their first Tournament bid since 1991.

The most exciting part of all of this? They’re still one of the least-experienced teams in the country – checking in at 244th in experience. Rutgers will only lose forwards senior Shaq Carter and graduate student Akwasi Yeboah to graduation. Its core, comprised of sophomore guards Ron Harper Jr., Montez Mathis, Caleb McConnell and center Myles Johnson has two years of eligibility remaining for each player.

It’s a tough road ahead for the Knights. But, if the first 21 games are any indication, Pikiell and his squad are up to the task.

For updates on the Rutgers men's basketball team, follow @TargumSports on Twitter.

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