Despite the Rutgers men’s basketball team beginning the season with a 9-1 record, the best start since the program’s lone Final Four appearance 41 seasons ago, we really don’t know a lot about them yet. What we do know is they have beaten the teams they were supposed to beat and they lost to the one team better than them on paper in Miami. After how the previous three seasons went, this marks tangible progress and something we should all be happy about. Actually, scratch that, we should be absolutely thrilled. There haven’t been any bad losses and they represented fairly well in the their loss to the Hurricanes. However, as the calendar is rapidly approaching January, the schedule is about to ramp up in a major way.
The reality is that Rutgers has so much still to prove. To the outside world, they haven’t proven anything, except that they are not a complete disaster this season on the court so far. However, there are many people still doubting this team and based on recent past history, they have every right to.
The highest ranked opponent Rutgers has beaten is DePaul, who today sit at #178 in the KenPom Rankings. The only Big Ten team ranked worse than 100, other than Rutgers at #132, is Penn State, who sit at #123. Things are about to get real very quickly and no one understands that better than head coach Steve Pikiell. Here is what he said during yesterday’s Big Ten teleconference on the current state of his team:
We are a work in progress team. We are getting better. It’s been a lot of learning my roster, a lot of them figuring me out too. A whole different system put in, in a short period of time. A lot of new players. One senior, so leadership has been an issue from day one. We are making good progress, we’ve learned to defend a little bit, improved our rebounding. I’m real pleased, we almost have five guys in double figures scoring wise, so they’re kind of sharing the game a little bit. We’ve got a long way to go, but I think we are headed in the right direction.
The fact that this team has dealt with so many changes and hasn’t stumbled along the way is encouraging and something to appreciate. They have fully bought in to what the new coaching staff is preaching and positive results have followed. However, they aren’t out of the woods yet. Rutgers has two games this week that are extremely important to their progress and they need to win, in order to keep the good vibes of their 9-1 start moving forward.
Fairleigh Dickinson visits the RAC tomorrow night and Rutgers takes on Fordham at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon. FDU is 2-7 with a #290 ranking, while Fordham is 5-6 with a #199 ranking. Both teams will take a five game losing streak into their matchup with Rutgers. That makes them dangerous opponents and teams that cannot be overlooked, because they are both capable of beating the Scarlet Knights.
I’ve been worried about FDU since the schedule was released. They are the defending champs of the Northeast Conference and were voted the preseason favorites to repeat. They just gave Ohio State everything they could handle in a 70-62 loss on the road in Columbus. They won’t be intimidated about coming to the RAC, where they beat Rutgers three seasons ago. Pikiell had this to say about their performance against the Buckeyes and how they are preparing for this game:
I thought it was a really competitive game. That’s obviously the tape we will be showing our guys. But really, I thought FDU was ready to play. I love Ohio State and the talent they have, so for us its a great game to watch, so our guys really have their attention in how well they played in that game.
Rutgers has shown growth in the past two games, putting together their best performance in dominating Central Connecticut State and gutting out a win on the road against Stony Brook. After trailing by as many as 10 points in Pikiell’s reunion against his former team, Rutgers re-focused and took over behind a 15-0 run midway in the second half. They need to build off of last week and keep moving forward, because if they come out flat against FDU and let them hang around, it could spell disaster. They led Ohio State in the first half of their game by 6 points and after trailing by as many as 19 points in the second half, they were able to cut their deficit to 6 points in the final minute of that contest. They will go down swinging and Rutgers needs to be ready.
Fordham made their own progress in the Atlantic 10 last season under then first year head coach Jeff Neubauer, who led them to a 17-14 record. That marked an impressive seven game improvement from the previous year. After starting 5-1 this season, they’ve stumbled of late, including a 28 point loss to St. John’s last week and falling to Manhattan last Saturday. This is absolutely a game Rutgers should win, but they are no where near able to take this game for granted. And neither should our fans.
That is my point. Be thrilled with the 9-1 start, but be cautiously optimistic about the rest of the season and nothing more. Rutgers has a lot to improve on and we have a lot still to learn about them. This week is a big opportunity for this team to get to 11 wins in the non-conference portion of their schedule. That would be significant and something no one predicted. However, they could easily lose one or both games against FDU and Fordham.
If they don’t play well, the entire outlook of what they’ve done so far will change for the worse. These are the last two games Rutgers will likely be favored to win the rest of the season, with Seton Hall and the 18 game Big Ten schedule up next. Rutgers has to take advantage and seize this opportunity. If they don’t, it’s fair to be disappointed, but also understand this team is still learning. A work in progress isn’t always pretty. Rutgers has avoided any missteps so far, something we haven’t been able to say in a very long time. Let’s hope it continues through this week and they can keep building forward momentum ahead of the treacherous schedule that awaits them.