February in College basketball means big games. Teams battle for conference championships. Ranked teams fight to the death for one higher seed. Bubble teams either rise to the Dance like Purdue last season or wilt and are banished to the land of ghosts and silence that is the NIT. By the end of the month you get what is becoming an even better extension to the NCAA Tournament in Championship Week, where virtually every school can hit the reset button and hope to get hot for 4-5 games and steal an automatic bid.
The best game of the bunch may be coming, however, and Tuesday, February 23rd is its date:
Rutgers (6-21, 0-14) at Minnesota (6-21, 0-14)
Just look at it for a moment. We haven't had such a thing of beauty since the infamous Illinois at Purdue football game in 2013, when a historically inept Purdue hosted Illinois, who was on a 20-game Big Ten losing streak.
That Illinois-Purdue game had tickets available on Stubhub for as low as 25 cents, yet it was strangely entertaining and came down to the final minute before an interception sealed a 20-16 Illini victory. It was a matter of two teams being so bad it ended up being a good game because both sides were going all out knowing they actually had a shot at a rare win.
That's what this game can be. To my knowledge, I don't think there has EVER been a matchup of two teams with worse conference records in the history of college basketball. Usually at this point in the season everyone has managed to get at least one conference win. To have just one team, let alone two, sit winless in league play this deep into the season is rare. Northwestern is the last team to go winless in Big Ten play, going 5-25 overall and an imperfect 0-16 in conference play. Since then a few teams have come close:
- In 2004-05 Penn State went 1-15, beating Northwestern 65-62 at home for their lone win.
- In 2007-08, the first year back with an 18 game conference schedule, Northwestern posted a 1-17. The lone win came 62-60 at Michigan.
- The next season a sanction-depleted Indiana went 1-17, beating Iowa 68-60 in Assembly Hall.
That 1999-2000 Northwestern team was epically bad, however. They once scored 29 points in a 59-29 home loss to Michigan State and just 30 in a 63-30 home loss to Illinois. Aside from a 61-55 overtime loss at home to Michigan they did not come within 10 points of another Big Ten team. For good measure they even lost a then-non-conference game to Nebraska 61-52.
Rutgers-Minnesota is a precious jewel that must be preserved, however. We have dodged some bullets so far, for example:
- Minnesota lost at home in overtime to Illinois 76-71.
- The Gophers have been tough at home, taking Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue, and Michigan into the final minutes.
- Rutgers had an epic triple overtime 110-101 loss that was strangely entertaining.
- Rutgers also took Indiana to the limit before losing by 7.
The imperfect 0-28 is just five games away from happening. Minnesota will almost certainly get there, as they play Iowa and Maryland before this one. Rutgers has three games: Ohio State, at Illinois, and a dangerous home game against Penn State. That Penn State game could ruin things, as the Scarlet Knights beat Penn State 50-46 in Piscataway last season.
But how did we get here? How did the Big Ten, which has been one of the strongest conferences in America for years now, get two of the worst Power Five teams? Here is the complete list of Division I teams that are winless in conference play as of February 11, with power 5 teams in bold:
Boston College (ACC) 0-11
St. John's (Big East) 0-12
Rutgers (Big Ten) 0-11
Minnesota (Big Ten) 0-12
Delaware (CAA) 0-12
Chicago State (WAC) 0-9
For Rutgers it is simple. They have recruited poorly, have had injuries (they dressed only 6 scholarship players in a 50 point blowout loss to Purdue), they have had a coaching transition, there is minimal fan support, and they are, in general an awful program that hasn't been to an NCAA Tournament in 25 years. Their own beat writer called their situation hopeless after the Purdue game. Rutgers has now lost 25 consecutive Big Ten games (26 if you count last season's B1G Tourney loss to Minnesota), one of the longest losing streaks in conference play ever. Northwestern lost 30 regular season conference games in a row from 1999-2001, but they won a game in the 1999 Big Ten Tournament, so that could be considered "only" a 24 game losing streak. Northwestern lost 29 in a row, with no conference tournament, from 1990-92, including an 0-18 in 1991, but researching further back would just be depressing.
For Minnesota it is even more baffling. This was a team was 17-15 last season and, until mid-February, was in contention for an NCAA bid. After beating Iowa 64-59 on February 12 last year they were 15-9, 5-7 in the Big Ten and at least on the Bubble. Instead, they lost five of their last 6 and crashed out of the B1G tourney in round 2. Just two seasons ago they won the postseason NIT, which is still a decent achievement. They were a team on the rise then. Now they are floundering. Since beating Clemson 89-83 in the ACC/B1G Challenge to move to 5-2 with no bad losses they have won exactly once: over Chicago State, one of the worst teams in America.
I have an odd fascination with this game. It is like a train wreck in slow motion. You have seen it coming for weeks. Both teams have been bad, so it is only right that they measure just how bad they have been by playing against each other. They rank 250 for Minnesota and 254 for Rutgers in the RPI. That is in the neighborhood of such powers as Mount St. Mary's, Florida International, and Montana State. I want to keep tabs on this game mostly because SOMEONE has to win. Both teams know the other is vulnerable, so you know the kids are going to go all out.
I do want whatever team that loses to lose their remaining games, including the rematch in Piscataway on March 5th. 16 years is enough for Northwestern to be on the hook. If you're going to be bad, be historically bad and go down as the worst ever.