So, as was chronicled yesterday Dick Vitale ruffled the feathers of Rutgers fans with this tweet:
Just wondering as I just ran into some super guys that love Rutgers - They agreed that RUTGERS does not belong in the Big 10!— Dick Vitale (@DickieV) August 3, 2014
Let's get this out of the way right now. Rutgers, as a University and a football school, profiles as a Big Ten school. It is a major research university--one that just re-acquired (or is it acquired) a medical school and is the biggest university in the state. Rutgers lines up with Michigan and Ohio State in terms of prestige and academics and is only improving as time passes (just don't tell that to New Jerseyans who didn't attend the school). The football team plays a Big Ten style and is building and building to truly fit into the Big Ten mold. It is only a matter of time. Football is, after all, a national sport. There are Rutgers fans and Michigan fans and Ohio State and Penn State fans everywhere.
So, on the surface, is what Vitale says true?
No, not at all.
However, let's look a little deeper at Vitale. Dick Vitale is a basketball guy. In fact, he's a former Rutgers assistant coach who landed Phil Sellers, the best player in Rutgers basketball history. He views things through the lens of someone who thinks basketball first (90% of Rutgers fans just cringed at the idea of basketball first--just go with me here, people). And basketball is a regional sport.
And, therefore, despite being one of the top 2 basketball conferences in the nation--the Big Ten doesn't translate here well. Not at the moment. And location was always one of Rutgers biggest selling points. Football never could play the "You'll play against the best" card when they were recruiting.
In the Big East, basketball could. It didn't help, but it was a selling point. You can stay home, play on national TV against the best teams in the country, and your family and friends can come watch you play almost every game. Even most of the road games.
There were also regional rivalries that matter in basketball. Those are all gone--at least in terms of conference. Even Rutgers coaches privately preferred the ACC. What are the selling points for Rutgers basketball now? You can stay home and play against the best? It's tricky to sell that because the kids know Duke and Syracuse and Louisville and Villanova. Those are the blue bloods of this era. Michigan and Ohio State don't come and recruit here much.
But, this is only a temporary problem. As the Big Ten migrates east, as a brand, so too will the schools. Down the line, players will be exposed more to the Michigans and Ohio States. Not only will they play a Tournament in Washington DC, but maybe-also-in NYC. Those teams will be coming to the RAC and they will likely be in the high school gyms recruiting. Tom Izzo, Thad Matta and John Beilein won't just be names anymore, but kids will see them in flesh and blood.
And somehow, that will help Rutgers. However, this will all take time. Maybe even years.
Rutgers can't wait years. The program has been through too much. Seton Hall and St. John's--despite their own shortcomings--have had much better recruiting success. Rutgers needs to be proactive to prove Vitale and many of the critics wrong.
They need to break ground on new facilities as soon as possible. The Big Ten is an arms race, college basketball recruiting is an arms race, and Rutgers needs to get involved. And that's where the Big Ten helps. There's money here and that money needs to be invested. There are two big sports in college, and basketball is the other one. It needs tender lovin' care. Time to start to build. Take advantage of some of the money that's coming this way and re-invest... in basketball. The time of hoping you catch lightning in a bottle with a coach who can recruit is gone. It's failed here. It's time to handle basketball the way football was handled in the early 2000s.
At the same time, it would help if Eddie can overachieve--does catch some lightning--the next year or two. Get close to .500 next year. Steal a major recruit (cough, Mr. Briscoe, your chariot awaits?) and show some signs Rutgers is headed in the right direction. But that does not often lead to long term success without support.
Another lost year, and it may not matter. Vitale will be wrong regarding the University, but right about basketball. Rutgers wouldn't even have region to fall back on. And that just cannot stand.
Rutgers has an opportunity in all sports, including basketball, to move forward and get better. To pass the Catholic schools they left behind.
But it's time to actually do that. Start building. Start caring.
Basketball matters too.
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