Back in 2011, Mike Rice was a second year coach with a heck of a recruiting class just starting to find its way at the RAC. On December 22, the Scarlet Knights beat NJIT to creep 2 games over .500 during a disappointing Out Of Conference portion of their schedule. There was only one game left in the OOC, and it was a doozy.
Nationally ranked Florida—with former Rutgers guard and transfer Mike Rosario on the roster—was about to come swaggering into the RAC. They were ranked 10th in the nation, and the odds weren’t looking good for the Scarlet Knights. But there was a lot of buzz for the game. Rosario’s prodigal return created some hype around the media for a sleepy Christmas week game.
And the Scarlet Knights—in my favorite game since having season tickets—came to play. They beat Florida in double OT because Eli Carter and favorite son Myles Mack went nuts offensively. After that game, it seemed like the basketball nose of the plane was pointed upward. No one knew what was really going on at Mike Rice practices, and things were optimistic. A few weeks later, they up ended a ranked UConn team.
It hasn’t felt like that at the RAC since. But six years later, Steve Pikiell brought a little of that magic back to the banks of the old Raritan.
The lead up to this game brought a similar—or maybe even more so—amount of hype. A local rival, nationally ranked Seton Hall, was coming to a building that had seen some close games. The head coach of the Scarlet Knights had Rutgers playing well, but had fallen in a couple of games against really good teams. Just like those early Rice days, there was a feeling that Steve Pikiell had the Scarlet Knights on the right trajectory.
But the odds of beating a top 25 team? No one seemed sure. Pikiell had some close calls—taking Wisconsin to overtime last season and hanging with Michigan State down to the wire—but he hadn’t gotten over the top yet.
And, as we saw, early in the game, Seton Hall came to play, leading by 13. And, in an eerie parallel, the Pirates led by 9 with six minutes left. Against Florida, Rutgers had to rally from a very late 7 point deficit in the second half.
In both games, defense was key. Rutgers was able to shut down Delgado offensively, just like the forced Mike Rosario (who hadn’t quite blossomed yet) in to several errors and a technical. Both games were chippy.
And the outcomes, wow.
The RAC didn’t rock as much against Florida as it did yesterday—it was loud, but not mega loud. Yesterday the walls shook.. People hadn’t seen the potential with Rice like they do with Pikiell. The nose of the plane is pointing up again. Pikiell had two quality recruits in for the game yesterday and will continue his slow build in the Big Ten.
Rutgers isn’t there yet. Not by a long shot, but yesterday was a key moment in the build. Along with the practice facility, and the good recruiting classes, now he has a win to point to. He can use that win to say, “Now imagine what we can do with you here.”
The nose of the plane is pointing up. I don’t know about you, but I’m enjoying the build.
There’s always a risk with these things, an injury, a defection. But this feels like the perfect time to be happy. This feels like the moment where athletic director Pat Hobbs knows he has the right guy. Time to draw up those extension contracts again.
Yesterday, Rutgers became a red state again.
It’s time to enjoy the magic and watch Pikiell keep it going. Maybe in a few weeks, we’ll have an upset again, like when Rice beat UConn. Like 2011, I don’t expect this is an NCAA Tournament team this year. Not yet. And, knowing what we know now, it’s unfair to compare Mike Rice and Steve Pikiell—the end of the Rice era makes that difficult. But the similarities in the history of these two games are there.
Under Steve Pikiell, the future is bright. Yesterday proved that, yet again.
This is going to continue to be fun.