After the first year without an NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament since its debut in 1939, March Madness returns in 2021 to the delight of college basketball fans everywhere. Once the First Four is in the books, the madness will be in full swing starting with the Round of 64 starting on Friday.
One of the final games of the opening day’s slate will feature the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and Clemson Tigers, who first met in 1999 — a 78-68 Clemson road win — with each school notching a win in 2014 and 2015 matchups at Clemson. Rutgers and Clemson climbed as high as No. 11 and No. 12 in the AP poll, respectively, before ultimately concluding the regular season out of the Top 25. But the regular season is now in the rearview mirror, the Big Dance the focus going forward.
Midwest Region: No. 10 Rutgers Scarlet Knights (15-11) vs. No. 7 Clemson Tigers (16-7)
Time: Friday, March 19 at 9:20 p.m. ET
Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (Indianapolis)
Spread: Rutgers -1.5
Keys for Rutgers
The Scarlet Knights find themselves in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 30 seasons, and the team will aim to notch the program’s first tournament win since 1983. They’ll do well to rely on the defense that carried the squad throughout the season, finishing eighth in Division I in blocks (136). Rutgers utilized their Big Ten-best marks in both blocks and steals (203, 31st in Division I) en route to allowing just 68.2 points per game, which was a top-five mark in the conference. With the Big Ten producing a pair of No.1 seeds and another pair of 2s in this year’s tournament, Rutgers’ conference-leading performances in those areas highlight the team’s impressive success on defense this season.
A number of contributors chipped in for this production, including junior forward Myles Johnson (64 blocks, 12th in Division I) and senior guard Jacob Young (47 steals, 39th in Division I), both of whom led the Big Ten in those categories. Johnson tallied eight double-doubles during the season, with three coming in the Scarlet Knights’ final eight games. Young, meanwhile, finished just behind Ron Harper Jr. for the team lead in scoring as the pair combined for 29.8 points per game.
Keys for Clemson
Just like its counterparts on the gridiron, Clemson featured one of the best defenses on the hardwood throughout all of Division I. Though not the top mark in the ACC — that honor goes to Virginia, who allowed 60.5 points per game — the Tigers’ 62 points per game finished a close second and as a top-15 mark nationally. Clemson only surrendered 70 points twice in its first 10 games, which helped boost the Tigers all the way up to 12th before a 35-point loss to Virginia and an 18-point loss at Georgia Tech were enough to drop the Tigers out of the top 25 entirely.
That stout defense was a benefit as only senior forward Aamir Simms (13.3 ppg) averaged double figures in scoring for Clemson this season. Four other Tigers averaged at least seven points per game, but the lack of proven scoring options aside from Simms proved costly as Clemson never won when it allowed 73 or more points. On the flip side, though, the Tigers dominated in lower-scoring matchups, winning all 11 games when allowing 62 or fewer points.
Rutgers’ experienced roster — over 80 percent of the team’s minutes and scoring return from the 2019-20 group — will be key as the team makes its first NCAA Tournament appearance in three decades, hungry to notch the school’s first win in the Big Dance in nearly four decades. Defense is the calling card for both teams, and while Clemson’s scoring defense was a few points better than that of Rutgers, the two squads’ defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) marks were nearly identical. In order to pull off the upset and hand the Tigers their first non-ACC loss this season, Rutgers will need its defense to stand tall while relying on its veteran leadership to get the Scarlet Knights across the finish line.
Prediction: Rutgers 67, Clemson 63
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.