CHICAGO — In just a few days almost every American will be doing the same thing — filling out a bracket. And as people decide on which 12 over 5 upset they’re going to pick, or what team could make a deep tourney run out of nowhere, I’m here to tell you that the first game of the day on Friday at the Big Ten Tournament gave you the right answer. Because even though No. 9 Rutgers lost to No. 1 Purdue 70-65 inside the United Center, they put the field on notice.
Even when you lose, sometimes you win.
“They’re obviously an NCAA Tournament team. I think they can do some real damage,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter after the game.
If you’re reading this because you’re confused about how Rutgers might be the team that can bust brackets, don’t feel bad. The Scarlet Knights finished ninth in the Big Ten, have a 19-14 record, and lost to the likes of Temple and Seton Hall — a game in which they were held to just 43 points — this season. This is also a program with only eight tournament appearances in program history. In fact, their most infamous moment may have been when former head coach Mike Rice became a national story in 2012 when he was suspended, then fired, after a video of him shoving, grabbing, and throwing balls at players while using gay slurs during practice was released.
A thorn in Purdue’s side
But that was then, and this is now. And over the last few years, Rutgers has been a thorn in the side of Purdue — one of the best teams in the Big Ten and the country. Coming into Friday’s game, the Scarlet Knights were 5-1 in their last six games against the Boilermakers.
In 2021, they upset No. 1 Purdue on their home floor in New Jersey.
And in January, they upset No. 1 Purdue — again. But, this time, it was in West Lafayette.
Outside of some bad officiating late in the game, the outcome of Friday’s game came down to Purdue shooting 14 more free throws than Rutgers and beating the Scarlet Knights on the boards by seven. But in a back-and-forth game that was tight almost the whole way through, it was Rutgers that held the largest lead of the game as it went up by 12 in the first half.
According to ESPN’s bracket guru Joe Lunardi, Rutgers has done enough to make it into the field of 68. However, nothing is set in stone until Selection Sunday.
When Rutgers began playing in the Big Ten in 2014, it felt like the conference was only doing it to get a hold of the New York TV market, as conference realignments are all about money, media rights, and football — even if the team sucks. But almost a decade later, Rutgers has become a pest for one of the better teams in the conference, as they’ve evolved into Purdue’s nemesis. In March, a team that most people have ignored, has a ton of confidence, and has beaten the best, is just the team that can destroy your bracket on day one. It was Saint Peter’s — another Jersey school — last year. It might be the Scarlet Knights this year.