The calendar has turned to December and Rutgers returns home after suffering their first loss of the season to Miami on the road. While they were plagued by shooting woes and defensive consistency, the effort and fight the team displayed was very encouraging. In fact, while a 6-1 record to start the season is “knight and day” from the past few years, the togetherness and will of this team to win is the most refreshing difference under new head coach Steve Pikiell.
The Miami game was a perfect example of the positive changes that have occurred with the team’s mindset. They never gave up and when they were able to heighten their focus and intensity on the defensive end, Rutgers was very competitive against a top tier ACC team. They displayed a toughness not seen on the banks in several years. The biggest obstacle in changing the culture of a program is in changing a team’s mindset. It’s obvious that it’s happening with Rutgers basketball, and while an upgrade in talent and depth is still needed, they will certainly be a much harder out for Big Ten opponents if they continue to battle this season.
Now is the time for Rutgers fans, and in particular the students, to change their mindset as well. It’s been a rough few years and no one should be blamed for having their spirit tested. Let’s be honest, the product on the floor was tough to watch at its best, and downright depressing at its worst. No matter what record Rutgers does finish with during the first season of the Pikiell era, I am confident those days are over. It’s time to get behind this program and be proud of the players on this team.
Fans deserve a team that we can be hopeful of and proud to support. These players have proven early on that they deserve that support and their effort has stirred the old echoes of what a great environment the RAC used to be. Now is time to make it great again.
Pikiell is well aware of how much of a home court advantage the RAC can be. When I spoke with him at Big Ten Media Day in October, he had this to say about his new home.
I’ve been to the RAC. When I was at Yale, we played there when I was an assistant coach. I’ve been there with UConn. I’ve been to games there just as a fan watching when I was younger. I’ve seen when the place was rocking. I’ve talked to coach Calhoun, he kind of put it in the top three or four places he’s ever coached in terms of the environment.
That’s right, Hall of Fame basketball coach Jim Calhoun told Pikiell how hard it is for opponents to play at the RAC when it’s at its best. That is some heady stuff, but it’s also true. Think about all of the great venues that UConn has played over the years, both within the old Big East and on a national stage. Occasionally, announcers during Rutgers games reference the way the RAC “used to be”.
Brian Dohn of the Scarlet Report wrote a great piece a few years ago about the top 5 games in RAC history. Turns out I was in attendance for the #1 and #3 ranked games on his list. Being at the 1989 A10 Championship game and watching Rutgers earn an NCAA tournament berth in beating Penn State is one of the best sporting moments of my life. However, there are probably two dozen games over the years that could be on that list, including more recent wins over Villanova, UConn, and Wisconsin. If you have been fortunate to be in attendance for one of them, you know how special the place can be. In changing the culture of Rutgers Basketball, Pikiell also wants to recapture that lost magic of the RAC.
I’m looking forward to building that type of environment too. Making it a hard place to play, as are all the places we play in this league. The fans are a big part of everything and the students are a big part of everything. As the students come, people come. Hopefully you put a product on the floor that players are doing it the right way and playing hard, people want to come see that.
In just seven games this season, it’s become pretty clear that this team is playing hard and trying to do things the right way. It’s time for the RAC to become the RAC again. This team needs all the help it can get. If you don’t think the players notice the crowd and the potential for a home court advantage, here is what Rutgers guard Nigel Johnson told me after the last second win over Hartford last week:
It was really loud. It was the loudest it’s been since I got here. I mean you when you get that many fans behind you and you’re out there and you’re running and going crazy, it makes it that much more fun. When we started to string together those stops, we got the crowd involved and behind us, and like you said, the RAC is a loud place. When you can get that many fans behind you and get the other team a little shaky, it makes it that much easier to win and makes it that much more exciting.
Nigel played two years of college ball in the Big 12 conference with Kansas State before transferring to Rutgers, so he has a unique perspective. He has played on the road in places like Allen Fieldhouse, the famous home of Kansas, as well as places like Oklahoma, Texas, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State. Those are venues that are known as very difficult places for opponents to play. Here is how the RAC compares in Nigel’s eyes:
The RAC, I mean especially when we are winning like this, the RAC can get as loud as anywhere. I’ve been in a lot of loud places, but it definitely ranks up there with the loudest of them.
Students and fans need to pack the RAC, starting this Saturday night against Morgan State. So what if it isn’t a marquee opponent. Come support a team that has potential and is fun to watch. Once the conference schedule begins at home on New Years Day against Penn State, the crowd really has an opportunity to give Rutgers a competitive advantage. It’s impossible to quantify, but there is no doubt when the RAC is truly rocking, it’s much harder for the opposition to walk out a winner. This team is looking like they will uphold their end of the bargain and put forth maximum effort on a nightly basis, which is one of Pikiell’s missions in changing the culture. Better days are ahead.
Now is time for fans and students to uphold their end and support this program as much as possible. It could help swing some conference games, which would swing the entire trajectory of this season. If Rutgers can win a few Big Ten games this season, perception will change on the recruiting trail and the rebuild will be ahead of schedule. You can make a difference. It’s an easy choice in my mind, let’s make the RAC great again...together!