Tonight is the men's basketball national championship game and old Big East rival Villanova is playing North Carolina. There is a lot of history with Rutgers and Villanova, including one of the best wins for the Scarlet Knights in the past 5 years and a couple more in the most successful season in over a decade for the program. Overall, Rutgers is 9-23 all-time against Villanova, who we played in the Big East at least once a season from 1995-2013.
Of course, there is also the fact that Rutgers ALMOST hired Jay Wright back in 2001. Wright was asked about it at the Final Four and spoke in detail about the week that he interviewed both with Rutgers and Villanova. You can read his account here. Jerry Carino took the idea a step further and wrote today about what might have been had Wright taken the Rutgers job before former Villanova coach Steve Lappas left for UMASS. So when you watch the game tonight, make sure to thank the basketball gods for this cruel twist of fate.
Enough about that historical footnote and let's look back on some memorable games between Rutgers and Villanova. In terms of notable games between the two schools that I remember, I'll start back when I was at Rutgers as a student my junior year. In 1999, Rutgers won their first matchup of the season against Villanova at the RAC 97-87, starting the season at 10-4 with legitimate NCAA hopes. This was a special team with Geoff Billet, Jeff Greer, Rashod Kent, Joel Salvi, Earl Johnson and Rob Hodgson. My best friend and I drove to Villanova for the Wednesday night rematch in early February, as Rutgers was on a four game winning streak, including home wins over #18 Syracuse and West Virginia, and a road win at Notre Dame. Those were the days!
Rutgers was 14-6 and going dancing seemed like a reality. So we sat in the Nova student section with our good friend from home who went there. It was a hostile environment and one of the best game atmosphere's I've ever been at. It was a tight game the whole way and Rutgers was down 77-73, when Jeff Greer made a clutch three point play, cutting the Nova lead to 1 with 2:02 to play. Unfortunately, the home team closed the game on a 7-2 run and Billet missed a three-pointer at the buzzer, which IF he had made it would have meant Rutgers lost by 3 points on a 4 point spread. Instead I went home a double loser and I can still see my friend's face gleeful in delight of that fact! Rutgers won their next three games and at 17-7 were so damn close to dancing. Instead, a four game losing streak to end the season put Rutgers in the NIT and finished 19-13 record and a 2nd round NIT exit.
Rutgers beat Nova again at home in my senior year in 2000, winning 73-60 before losing the rematch on road 82-70. Rutgers finished 15-16 with an NIT first round loss.
Alas, the best season for Rutgers basketball since 1991 was the 2004 season, when Gary Waters and Quincy Douby led the team to a 20-13 season. Rutgers won the regular season matchup at Villanova 71-68, which I think was their last win ever there. As luck would have it, these teams met again in the 3rd round of NIT, when Rutgers beat Nova again 72-60, sending the Scarlet Knights to Madison Square Garden for the NIT Final Four. The magic ran out in the NIT Finals after a 62-55 loss to Michigan.
Villanova got revenge on Rutgers in 2006, essentially ruining the season of our last winning team. Rutgers was 11-3 at the time of their first matchup and Villanova came in ranked #3 in the country. Rutgers played tough but lost a heartbreaker 84-78 in OT at home. Our own Dave White was there and still has nightmares. Here are some highlights of that brutal loss.
After a rough stretch in which Rutgers lost six of seven games, they won the last two games of the regular season and entered the Big East Tournament at 17-12. NCAA hopes were small but Rutgers knocked off Seton Hall in the first round and advanced to face Nova. Rutgers got annihilated and lost 87-55. They finished 19-14 and lost in the 2nd round of NIT. Rutgers hasn't had a winning record since. Thanks Villanova.
The 2008 matchup has to go down as one of the biggest upsets in Rutgers history in the Big East, as they defeated the Wildcats 80-68 in their only meeting that season. Villanova went on to the Sweet 16 and Rutgers finished with an 11-20 record.
Perhaps the biggest win in recent memory before the 2015 win at home of #4 Wisconsin, Rutgers stunned #9 Villanova in 2011 at the RAC. Rutgers already lost on the road to Nova 81-65 and was 19-4 at the time of the rematch. With Rutgers down 70-61 with 2 minutes to play, an improbable comeback ensued, capped off by Jonathan Mitchell's four point play with less than a second left. Highlights of the last two minutes and guerrilla footage from the stands are here:
And lastly, in 2012 the now famous footage of the Rutgers band's saxophone player, who is a loyal reader of OTB, was captured and an icon was born. Rutgers lost 77-71 and then got trampled by Nova again just 5 days later in Big East Tourney by 21 points,
So good luck to old conference rival Villanova tonight in the national championship game. They are without a doubt one of the Big East teams I miss Rutgers playing, even though they got the better of us most of the time. But a win over Villanova was particularly sweet and I remember them all. Not just because I got to have fun trash talking with my friend who went there, but beating them brought a special sense of satisfaction that only happens against a local conference rival. Please share any memories of Rutgers-Villanova games that you may have in the comments.