Purdue went to No. 1 in the Associated Press men’s college basketball poll this week for the first time, joining such legendary programs as Saint Joseph’s, San Francisco, and Holy Cross in having achieved that honor. It will be a short stay, most likely, because last night the Boilermakers lost to Rutgers in absolutely thrilling fashion.
They’re celebrating in Central Jersey, despite the fact that it may not actually exist! These programs are in the same conference now—I still sometimes forget, despite how natural the rivalry is between two teams that play their home games 760 miles apart—but Rutgers lost to Illinois 86-51 in its Big Ten opener just last week. How’d they pull this off?
Purdue was no fluke No. 1 team. They have neutral-court wins over Villanova and North Carolina already this season, and home wins over Florida State and Iowa—good teams, all. Rutgers seems… OK. The Scarlet Knights can’t really shoot; they are 298th in the country (out of 358). They take pretty bad shots, per the JumpShotQ stat. But all of that was also at least a little bit true last year, when they made the March Madness field for the first time since 1991.
But, hey, sometimes those ugly shots are going to fall. This happened a few years ago when Rutgers beat Indiana in the Big Ten tournament, and it happened last night against Purdue. The Scarlet Knights hit 7-of-14 threes (Rutgers also doesn’t take many threes). They hit 18-of-34 two-pointers and 13-of-18 free throws. The one guy on the team who really can shoot threes, Ron Harper Jr.—yes, he’s Ron Harper’s son—hit 5-of-7 of them last night.
And what Rutgers reliably lacks in shot quality and accuracy, they make up for in other areas. They pass the ball really well. They usually don’t turn it over much, either, and though they did lose it 15 times last night—but still had a decent assist-to-turnover ratio with 18 assists. Meanwhile, the Boilermakers shot just 7-for-26 from three and also had some trouble scoring inside. Rutgers is the fifth-tallest team in the country, per KenPom, and defends the rim very well. They defend very well in general, and get lots of steals and blocks. They are annoying to play against, in short, and in college basketball that always gives you a chance.
It also helps that the game was at the Rutgers Athletic Center, aka the RAC! (The building has a new, hilarious corporate name—but much like with the new, less hilarious corporate name on Tom Gola Arena, I’m going to ignore it. Also apparently the Rutgers gym was technically called the Louis Brown Athletic Center at one point??) Don’t let the fact that Yale once broke a 105-year postseason win drought on this court in the NIT or that Rutgers lost to Lafayette there earlier this year fool you: The RAC can be a tough place to play. It seats 8,000. But the fans are right on top of the floor. Here’s a photo of its seating:
Ah, no, I’m sorry, that’s a photo of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. The actual seating at the RAC is much steeper. Now, is Rutgers particularly good at home? Not really! Over the past decade, Rutgers has just a .600 winning percentage at home. That percentage was dragged down by some truly dire teams before the arrival of Steve Pikiell’s regime, but it’s also boosted by the Knights’ 18-1 home mark in the Covid-shortened 2019-20 season. It all more or less comes out in the wash. Do you find the home courts of Monmouth and Duquesne, two teams near Rutgers in home winning percentage, particularly rough places to play? So, yeah, the RAC is roughly as tough a place to play as that, by the numbers. (Keep in mind Rutgers is playing many Big Ten teams at home, where they aren’t often favored.)
Anyway: Last night, Ron Harper’s heroics and some good fortune were enough to let them escape with the upset and continue the story that the RAC is a tough place to play for the next decade or so. I’m all for it. If you watch this video of the last shot, you can see that former MLB infielder and Rutgers alum Todd Frazier is also extremely into it, and also that he almost forgot to bring his young son with him when he stormed the floor.