UPDATE: The last time Rutgers made the men’s NCAA Tournament was in 2021. IT OFFICIALLY HAPPENED!
I originally published this post Jan. 15, 2020. At the time, Rutgers was a No. 8 seed in the Bracket Matrix, and the Scarlet Knights looked good for an NCAA Tournament berth. If Rutgers held on, it would be the first time in decades that Rutgers would dance.
The team did what it needed to, and by the time March rolled around, Rutgers was certainly in the field. Steve Pikiell had taken the program from basement to relevance by his fourth year, and the postseason drought was soon to come to an end. Then COVID-19 happened, and it was all taken away.
Now, we’re one year later. The pandemic is still happening, but the 2021 NCAA Tournament is on anyway. Rutgers isn’t in as strong of a position at this stage of the season as it was in 2020, but I have the Scarlet Knights in my latest bracketology projection as a No. 9 seed, and they control their own destiny at this point.
It’s not over, though. A couple losses could kill what Rutgers has built. But this is the closest the team has been to ending the drought. That begs the question for the second year in a row: when was the last time Rutgers made the NCAA Tournament?
Rutgers Last NCAA Tournament Appearance
The last time Rutgers went dancing was 1991: 30 years ago. That means that none of its student body, outside of perhaps people coming back to finish degrees later in life, were alive the last time its school played in March Madness. Certainly no one on the current roster was alive back then. Pikiell was a 23-year-old assistant at Connecticut just starting his coaching career.
Needless to say, it has been a while.
Bob Wenzel coached the 1990-91 Scarlet Knights, his third season at the helm of the then-A-10 member. Senior forward Keith Hughes was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, posting 21.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game to round out his double-double average. Senior guard Earl Duncan, a transfer from Syracuse, was the second-leading scorer and top distributor with 15.7 points and 3.8 assists each contest. Virginia transfer center Brent Dabbs finished off the team’s double figure scorers, averaging 13.5 points and 7.5 boards per outing.
Rutgers was 6-6 early in the season after losing six of eight, culminating in an 87-69 beating on the road at the hands of A-10 foe West Virginia. From there, though, the Scarlet Knights went on a tear, rattling off six-straight victories and winning 13 of the final 15 games of their schedule. Rutgers finished the regular season 18-8 (14-4) and atop the Atlantic-10, taking sole possession of the league’s crown. However, the Scarlet Knights would bow out in their first game in the A-10 Tournament, losing 90-87 to No. 8 seed St. Joseph’s in the quarterfinals. But it didn’t matter to the selection committee: Rutgers was awarded the No. 9 seed in the Southeast Regional, its second trip to the Big Dance in three seasons.
It would be a quick exit from the competition for Rutgers as the team fell, 79-76, to No. 8 seed Arizona State in the first round. But the game a compelling one as the teams traded blows throughout the first and second halves. Hughes scored 21 on 8-of-21 shooting from the field and nabbed 11 boards to lead Rutgers, with Duncan not far behind at 20 on 6-of-11 shooting. Dabbs also chipped in 12 points and 6 rebounds. Arizona State’s Isaac Austin and Tarence Wheeler both went off, though, combining for 50 points on 19-of-28 combined shooting from the field, and the Sun Devils barely edged the A-10 champs.
For Rutgers and college basketball fans looking to relive a piece of history, the first and second halves of the Arizona State game can be found in full on YouTube. The difference in production is jarring and a sign of just how long it has been since the Scarlet Knights danced. Nothing is guaranteed now, especially with how brutal the Big Ten is this season, but this appears like Rutgers’s best shot at a tournament appearance for decades.