Chris Ash had such an amazing off-season—bringing excitement, organization, and discipline to the Rutgers football program—that some fans were filled with sugar plum expectations of an upset last Saturday against the number 14 ranked Washington Huskies. Unfortunately, those expectations were met with some reality as the Scarlet Knights were run off the field in the first quarter and fell to the Huskies in a blowout.
That’s not to say the future isn’t bright for Chris Ash and company—it still is—but the reality of Saturday’s game showed a lot of fans how far the program needs to go (this season and beyond) to become a true powerhouse in the Big Ten.
Which, as just about everything Rutgers related does, got me thinking about basketball.
New head coach Steve Pikiell has had a similar off-season to Ash. Pikiell has taken a thin, out of shape team, and added to it with a new strength and conditioning coach and new players to bring depth to a program that badly needed it. Seeing these night and day (or is it Knight and day?) moves from the previous regime can bring a fans’ expectations to heights it probably shouldn’t. Newfound optimism and excitement is hard to temper sometime.
But, let’s remember Rutgers only won 7 total games last year and one Big Ten battle against a similarly downtrodden Minnesota team.
It will be hard not to improve on that record.
But that doesn’t mean Steve Pikiell is a New York Minute Miracle Worker. This program still has miles to go before they are competitive. A focus on defense and rebounding should make the Scarlet Knights palatable on the court and keep them in most games, but offensively, they are still lacking some of the needs to be a true competitive college hoops team.
Shooting is likely to still be a problem. Maybe Mike Williams can become more consistent from deep in his junior season. And more options might allow Corey Sanders to be more open. Maybe Issa Thiam’s stroke comes naturally and he plays a ton.
Experience is still a problem as well. There aren’t any seniors on this team, and in the Big Ten, senior rule the roost.
Twelve wins, with fewer blowouts and at least one RAC upset, is my goal for this Rutgers team. That’s still five wins more than last season and would be a sign of trending the right way. The out of conference schedule is full of cupcakes, and that’s fine for a building program, but you never know when one of those cupcakes might suddenly start cooking from three point land. Minefields always await a college basketball team.
And, again, twelve wins is a step in the right direction. Just as the loss to Washington shouldn’t damper fans’ view of the future of the Chris Ash era, losses will be part of the road for Pikiell.
The future is bright for both programs, but the optimism of the off season usually is brought to reality in the regular season.
Hoops and football have a long road to climb to get to where they want to be. Pikiell and Ash are up for the task.
The key for fans is not to set the bar too high in year one. Building is part of the fun.
The sunrise is peaking over the horizon, and while some clouds may linger, it will be a sunny day for the Scarlet Knights before too long.
I’m looking forward to the signs of progress as they appear, but I’m also willing to suffer through the road bumps.