The Big Ten’s first trip to New York City has not been well received.
Gregg Doyel’s column in the Indianapolis Star was headlined, “Big Ten tournament in New York City is stupid and everyone knows it.” Land of 10, a Big Ten blog, noted the signs outside Madison Square Garden showing how far it was from New York City to every Big Ten School.
Others mocked the Big Ten’s condensed schedule, which allowed them to hold the conference tournament in New York a week earlier than usual, during a weekend when smaller conferences are usually playing their tourneys. Others laughed at the incredibly cheap ticket prices on StubHub, which suggested that the demand among University of Iowa fans for tickets to a weekday afternoon game in a city 1,000 miles away was not any stronger than you’d expect.
“The objective, if you can believe this, was to lure Rutgers to the Big Ten,” Doyel wrote in his column, attempting to explain why a Midwest conference was playing in NYC. “Rutgers!” Put it that way, and take into consideration that Rutgers has been the 14th seed in a 14-seed tournament for all four of its years in the Big Ten, and the whole thing does seem silly. Lauren Theisen, my Michigan-grad coworker here, couldn’t even give all of her tickets away for that day’s games.
But I was in New York for the day, and Rutgers was still alive after an excruciating win over Minnesota on Wednesday, so obviously I had to go. I took one of Lauren’s free tickets. My ostensible reason for going was the Penn State-Northwestern game, because I like to root for Penn State and I like to root against Northwestern. (Thanks to the school having a good journalism program, Northwestern sports teams get way more attention than they deserve!)
And then, when that was over, I’d get to watch Indiana wax Rutgers. A fun night!
It was pretty empty just before tip-off of the first night game. (The box score didn’t report attendance; the second game attendance was an announced 13,996.) There was a lot funny about the night: Several fans showed up on the jumbotron multiple times, which gave the impression that there were so few fans in the building that the camera only had a few to pick from. The Big Ten asked players questions about their favorite New York movies, artists, sports teams, and all the coaches answered “None” to the sports team question. The halftime shows were Cornell Freeney and the German Wheel, which was awesome, and then a competing quick change act. It wasn’t David and Diana, the one I’d seen before; this was Natalie and Constantine. Their routine ended with a magic trick.
The basketball was good, too. Penn State and Northwestern played an entertaining game that was close throughout; Tony Carr hit two threes in the final four minutes to help PSU pull away with a late run. The Nittany Lions won, 65-57. Solid stuff. And then it was time for Rutgers.
The second game seemed like it was going to be a rout, and didn’t promise much in the way of fun. Rutgers actually plays great defense—23rd-best in the country, per KenPom. But the Scarlet Knights can’t shoot. Coming into last night’s game, they ranked 348th in the country in three-point shooting percentage (29.1 percent, fourth worst). When they take twos they’re not much better: 345th in the nation (42.6 percent). This is all obviously very bad, but it’s not just that they miss the shots they take; they also can’t create shots. In the JumpShotQ stat, which measures shot quality, Rutgers was next-to-last in NCAA Division I before last night.
KenPom’s numbers gave them a 30 percent chance of beating Indiana, a number that instantly seemed way high; the Hoosiers jumped out to a 17-3 lead and it was 24-8 with seven minutes left in the first half. Rutgers’ chances dropped to less than five percent at that point. This one was over.
Four minutes of game action later, the Scarlet Knights were down just three points. They took the lead right before halftime, and actually never trailed again. The shot quality did not improve; Corey Sanders, Rutgers’ big gun, loves to shoot this contested fadeaway jumper. It usually doesn’t fall much.
Last night, it did. He scored 28 points on 12-of-20 shooting. Rutgers went 29-of-50 from the floor. They shot 50 percent from three. Okay, they only took eight three-pointers. But that was still their second-best three-point performance all season (the Scarlet Knights went 5-for-8 from three in a win over Wisconsin in January).
And as Rutgers made shot after shot, the pro-Indiana crowd was drowned out by others in red: Rutgers fans! They were there, all right, and they were loud. This Indiana team didn’t quite live up to the program’s historic standards; they went just 16-15 this year. But those historic standards mean that a win over Indiana looks cool no matter what, and the victory was still a nice moment for a Scarlet Knights that once again finished last in the Big Ten. It was as if, for one night, Rutgers really was New York City’s team. When they won the game, 76-69, some fans chanted “We want Purdue!”
Or at least that’s what I was told. With four minutes left, I had to run to Penn Station to catch the last train back to Philadelphia. The transit gods didn’t want me to see Rutgers basketball’s biggest-ever Big Ten moment. It was a shame, but also somehow it fit.