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Better Days Are Finally Here For Rutgers Basketball

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The incredible comeback victory over Seton Hall is proof this program is rising under head coach Steve Pikiell

NCAA Basketball: Seton Hall at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

On the morning after Rutgers’ 71-65 comeback win over #15th ranked Seton Hall, it’s important to put the upset into context and assess how far this program has come in such a short time. It’s almost hard to believe that just two seasons ago on this same weekend, Rutgers lost at George Washington by 34 points. That came one week after the last time rival Seton Hall visited the RAC and embarrassed the Scarlet Knights in a 29 point rout. Those two losses were the first of eleven defeats by at least 20 points that season, which included a 34 point debacle to Nebraska and a 50 point ambush by Purdue. It was the last season of the Eddie Jordan era and days like this past Saturday seemed like a dream that would never be realized, or at least, not for a very long time.

For a program that hadn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991 and hadn’t had a winning season in a decade up to that point, it was hard to believe it would change anytime soon. Something drastic needed to happen and the likelihood of that occurring seemed inconceivable at that point. I covered every game during that 7 win season, the fewest for the program since the 1987-1988 season, which was the last of the Craig Littlepage era. It felt like a practice in self-torture because as that season progressed, each game felt more hopeless than the last.

Thankfully, those days are now ancient history. Once that season ended, recently hired athletic director Pat Hobbs, someone that actually cared about basketball, found Stony Brook head coach Steve Pikiell and the trajectory of the Rutgers men’s basketball program has been rising ever since.

Saturday was the first time that the Scarlet Knights have defeated a ranked team since January 11th, 2015 against #4 Wisconsin. While that Badger team ended up making it to the national championship game, the lineup that Rutgers beat at the RAC did not include National Player of the Year Frank Kaminsky and starting point guard Traevon Jackson left the game injured. The other difference in my opinion, is that the Wisconsin win didn’t feel like the start of something, but more a break along the way of what was also a difficult season (10-22 record). This win over Seton Hall, one in which Rutgers trailed by nine points with six minutes to play, seems to have legs and is part of something greater being built. At 10-3 and a chance to finish non-conference play with a 12-1 record, this game signified a climb up the ladder for this program, not just in perception, but also in reality.

Rutgers is now ranked 90th in the KenPom rankings, which measures advanced statistics and performance for all 351 Division I college basketball teams. It’s the first time they’ve cracked the top 100 and been ranked this high since January 17, 2013, when Rutgers was 12-4 in former head coach Mike Rice’s last season. That team struggled down the stretch, finishing with a 15-16 record and KenPom ranking of 106th. The last time the Scarlet Knights finished a season in the Top 100 was Rice’s first season in 2010-2011, when they went 15-17, but ended with a ranking of 78th.

Saturday’s win over Seton Hall feels different. A big reason why is because of all the positive steps we’ve seen Pikiell make with this program since his arrival. The change in culture, the improvement in strength and conditioning, and recruiting efforts have been relentless and productive. Seeing under recruited players like Eugene Omoruyi, Issa Thiam, and Geo Baker develop has been eye opening. The emphasis and improvements on defense and rebounding has given this team an identity. All of these factors make this victory seem like just the beginning of something special.

This Rutgers team, both by watching them and evaluating the advanced statistics, is becoming an elite defensive & rebounding team. The Scarlet Knights are fourth in the country in scoring defense (57.8 points per game) and first in rebounds (45.67 per game). In terms of adjusted defensive efficiency, a measurement used by KenPom, Rutgers is 27th in Division I and is ranked in the top 100 of every defensive advanced statistical category with the exception of opponent’s rate in grabbing offensive rebounds, which is still a respectable 136th.

The point is that behind defense and rebounding, Pikiell has created a team that can compete with any team in the country. After losing to an undefeated Florida State team by 5 points and to #2 Michigan State by 10 points, Rutgers seemed to be close to breaking out. To finally see this team do just that and in the fashion in which they did against its blood rival no less, made Saturday’s victory truly special.

Now, I do think it’s crucial to understand that while Pikiell has this team exceeding expectations a little more than a third of the way through this season, it’s important to keep things in perspective. Rutgers remains a poor offensive team and that isn’t likely to change that much this season, especially considering conference play will be a step up from most of the competition they’ve faced in non-conference action. It’s actually astounding that Rutgers shot just 34.3% against Seton Hall and won the game. It’s even more so when realizing they shot worse than that in the second half, one in which they trailed by 10 points at the break and despite shooting just 32.4% after it, they still were victorious. They made some huge shots, most notably Corey Sanders and Geo Baker, but there was also a stretch that Rutgers was 1 of 10 from the field and missed four shots near the rim on one possession.

So far this season, Rutgers is shooting 42.0% from the field, 27.9% from three-point range, and 63.4% from the free throw line. All of those shooting percentages are ranked worse than over 300 out of 351 Division I teams. The adjusted offensive efficiency for this team is ranked 221st per KenPom. This is not meant as a criticism, but merely a reminder that the win over Seton Hall was incredibly special, but it doesn’t mean that Rutgers is all of a sudden a contender to finish in the top half of the Big Ten and make the NCAA Tournament. Sure, anything is possible, but based on its offensive performance so far this season, it’s highly unlikely.

My biggest point is that it doesn’t matter. The fact that we as Rutgers fans experienced a win like Saturday’s against Seton Hall is a blessing and something we should cherish, particularly after how the current decade (2010’s) has gone for this program. Steve Pikiell has been a godsend and changed things in such a dramatic way in such a short time, it’s simply incredible. In my opinion, there is no reason to wait until the end of this season to extend his contract. Do it now to reward him for his efforts so far, to show the school’s commitment towards him and to make it incredibly difficult for any team after this season to even consider Pikiell for any potential job openings. The UConn fans and supporters will start to campaign for him to replace Kevin Ollie even more as this season progresses, that I guarantee. I’m not saying that has any influence on reality, but it’d be comforting to know there is no chance for it either.

Now that Pikiell has a signature win and the fact that it was over the best Seton Hall team in years, perception is changing for the better. The benefit this victory can have in recruiting is huge as well. I’ve had multiple sources tell me as late as last year that no legitimate recruit in New Jersey in previous classes through the 2017 class would have ever consider Rutgers over Seton Hall. We know that to be true based on recent recruiting classes for both programs. That has already changed when Pikiell signed Ron Harper Jr. out of Don Bosco Prep, who verbally committed to Rutgers the same week that he visited Seton Hall. With a win like this now, the upper hand that the school from South Orange once had is starting to lessen. Don’t get me wrong, Seton Hall is still in a better place as a program overall right now, but there is no doubt that Rutgers is rising and Pikiell now has this victory as proof to sell on the recruiting trail. As the mastercard commercial says, that is priceless. The balance of power in New Jersey is starting to level out and in a couple of years, it could be firmly on the side of Rutgers.

Having the RAC rock in the way in which it did during this victory was another step in the right direction in this rebuild. It’s a true measure for how far this program really has come in such a short time. It did not escape Pikiell either, who had this to say after the game:

“I think the first game I coached here, there were 1,800 fans. So I would say this was the most fans to watch a game here at the RAC since 2002. To have a place like that, it’s a credit to these guys (players). They made this a game. These are the guys who believed in us a year ago and stayed the course. It’s a credit to Seton Hall’s program, too, who are a ranked team, and it’s a credit to our fans that came out. It was unbelievable.”

I always believed we’d have days like this during the Steve Pikiell era, who made it clear early on that he was the right man for this massive rebuild of a program devoid of hope for a long time. It was his personality and experience that stuck out to me. I just never thought we’d have a day like Saturday so early in his tenure. The first winning campaign in over a decade and a program best record in Big Ten play since joining the conference seem very possible now this season. Things are changing in a big way at Rutgers, as we can finally say better days are finally here. While that doesn’t mean the ultimate goal of an NCAA Tournament berth is achievable this season, it’s truly starting to feel like it’s only a matter of time with Steve Pikiell leading this program.