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Rutgers basketball reaches postmodernity — and absurdity

Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

The following article was published last month on Tristan Jung's personal blog. It has been repurposed for publish here as Northwestern gets set to take on Rutgers tomorrow (1 p.m. CT, ESPNU).

It's just too easy to make fun of Rutgers men's basketball. Here are some stats that you can skim:

  • Rutgers is getting outscored by 21.1 points per game in conference play.
  • Rutgers lost by 22 points to Minnesota, the next-worst team in the Big Ten.
  • Rutgers lost to Nebraska by 34 points... at home.
  • Rutgers currently ranks 301st out of 351 Division I teams in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.
  • Rutgers is the currently on pace to be the worst power conference team in the history of KenPom ratings.

The negative statistics are endless. We get it, Rutgers is bad at basketball, but what does that even mean anymore? Or importantly, what doesn't it mean? Has Rutgers officially sucked all useful meaning and discourse from college basketball? You could argue that it has.

If so, the Scarlet Knights have officially reached a postmodern and absurdist state of college basketball. That's how absurd the program has become. At this point, with half its players injured and an 0-15 conference record, Rutgers is not even that funny anymore. It's just absurd. We're in Sartre and Camus territory now, and there's absolutely no exit from this season.

Rutgers is in rarified air simply because of the magnitude of its statistical ineptitude. Rutgers is 301st in KenPom's rankings. No Big Ten team has ever finished lower than 218th in KenPom (Penn State 2002). Rutgers could break that by 84 places. I didn't calculate mean and standard deviation of Big Ten efficiency results over the last 15 years, but I'd imagine being 84 places below the previous minimum is at least three or four standard deviations away from the mean.

This 2016 Rutgers team shouldn't exist as it does now. This shouldn't happen. The reaction to Rutgers basketball should not be, "how bad is the team?". It should be "how is this even possible?!"


In the absurdist play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern) flips a coin repeatedly. Unlike the coin in the Packers/Cardinals game, this coin actually flips every time. It also lands heads 70-plus times in a row. The absurd probability of this occurrence is remarked on by the main characters, but nobody else in the play seems to really care about the meaningless statistical unlikelihood of what has just occurred. Rutgers is like that coin.

Rutgers is doing something historic, something absolutely unprecedented, and yet it will likely go completely unnoticed despite its unimaginable probability. The fact that Rutgers can exist challenges the relationship college basketball fans have with truth. How does the relationship between the Big Ten and the Ivy League change when Rutgers would be the worst team in the Ivy League? In a world dominated by conference arguments and hierarchical splits between "mid-majors" and "the power conferences," Rutgers stands on a postmodernist island, challenging the power structure in the tradition of Foucault, de Beauvoir and Kurt Vonnegut.

There are others who have tried to match Rutgers' performance. Oregon State went 0-18 in the Pac-10 in 2008. That team went 6-25 and had one of the worst offenses in the nation. Oregon State still ended up 264th in KenPom, 38 spots ahead of Rutgers. That was also a loaded year for the Pac-10, as they had six teams make the tournament and were one of the top two conferences in the country.

This Rutgers team could go winless in conference play despite a comparatively weak year in the Big Ten. The closest Rutgers came to a win in Big Ten play was a triple-overtime loss to Illinois at home. Corey Sanders hit two buzzer beaters to send the game to overtime and double overtime. It didn't matter. Rutgers still lost.

In true postmodern form, Rutgers defies reason. This is a basketball team that takes reason and blocks it off the backboard and into the stands. Rutgers is so bad in Big Ten play that it can only be judged relativistically. Are they worse than SIU Edwardsville? What would happen if they played in the SWAC? These questions are ridiculous, and they reduce the classic college sports arguments to a comical farce. Perhaps Rutgers exists to trivialize our endless search for contextualization. Sometimes a team is just bad at basketball, and there's no reason to find a statistic or compare it to some baseline. Sometimes, there's just no point anymore.


You want to know what makes Rutgers even more absurd? Every game Rutgers plays, the student body is paying millions of dollars to keep the athletics program afloat. According to a recent article, Rutgers spent $166.6 million subsidizing its athletics program between 2010-2014. $47.2 million came from student fees. Rutgers is spending $77 million on athletics this season, and only expects to make about half of that back. Rutgers will not become a full member of the Big Ten until 2021, which means all the revenue from Big Ten Network and ESPN is still down the pipeline. Rutgers could be somewhere in the range of $300 million in debt to its athletics program before the Big Ten money starts flowing. Yes, many college athletics programs are in debt, but it takes something special to be that in debt.

So not only is Rutgers basketball bad, but it's bad and also costing every student who goes to the school for an education, ostensibly. It would probably be much better for the university as a whole if Rutgers just forfeited the remainder of its games to save on expenses. Rutgers athletics is a complete mess. It just fired Julie Hermann, a wildly unsuccessful AD, this fall after multiple arrests and drug allegations in the football program. Rutgers' last basketball coach got fired for abusing his own players. And now the team might be the worst in Big Ten history.

I have good friends who go to Rutgers, and I legitimately feel bad that they have to fork over part of their tuitions in order to fund this basketball team. When you get right down to it, it's possible that there is someone in the world who could not afford to go to college because of the funding required for this atrocious basketball team and corrupt athletics program. Think of how many scholarships the school could have given for $47.2 million. The world could be a better place. There could be hundreds of productive members of society who could have received a fully paid education.

Instead, we get to watch the 2015-16 Rutgers Scarlet Knights play basketball.

At this point, the badness of the team is just a cruel joke. Rutgers is Don Quixote tilting at a windmill. Rutgers is Oedipa Maas trying to find a postage stamp. Rutgers is in a wretched postmodern state, and its recovery is in doubt. The team is now so bad that you just have to stare and say, what's the point? Like Camus' famous example in The Myth of Sisyphus, Rutgers must keep pushing the rock up the mountain (court) by playing basketball. It cannot escape the absurdity of its existence.


Many postmodernists use black humor and absurdly dark situations to illustrate that there is no truth in society's social constructs. Right now there are enough opportunities for black humor in Rutgers basketball to make Thomas Pynchon proud. Maybe if Deshawn Freeman didn't go down, Rutgers wouldn't be in this mess. Maybe if the team had held on to beat Indiana at home or played a little better against Purdue, we wouldn't be having this conversation. But Rutgers' what-ifs are as pointless as Rutgers' season. There is nothing left but dark comedy, as Rutgers continues to turn the court into the Theatre of the Absurd.