While all the students at Rutgers are taking final exams for the fall semester this week, the men's basketball team will have one more big test they must pass before Christmas begins. After pulling off the biggest win for the program in many years on Saturday against then ranked #15 Seton Hall, the team needs to refocus ahead of Friday’s game against Stony Brook (4-8). It won't be easy coming down off of the emotional high they are on after shocking its rival in dramatic fashion in front of the largest RAC crowd in 15 years. However, Rutgers must regroup and be ready to play against head coach Steve Pikiell’s former team. It won't be easy.
One thing that is often overlooked is that we are talking about 18-22 year old kids. They have worked extremely hard and they deserved to bask in the glow of that glorious victory over their rival. However, to maintain momentum and continue making progress this season, they need to have the maturity to take care of business at the end of non-conference play. It has to be hard enough for them to refocus for final exams, but to then finish off the week with a game against a scrappy team with a likely, far different atmosphere at the RAC on Friday night will not be easy. There won't be many students there, as school will be over and most, if not all, will already be heading home for the winter break. Coach Pikiell touched on this in a conference call earlier on Wednesday:
“As a coach, you’re always worried about everything. We’ve got finals going on and then right after, we got a little break going on after this game. We’re playing a program I have tremendous respect for in Stony Brook. Recruited a lot of the players that are in the program. We had to give them yesterday off because our exam day was off the charts busy and we got to get back to work today and tomorrow and get them focused on the right things.”
In addition to the players, a good portion of the coaches and support staff will have their own challenges in keeping their emotions in check. Head coach Steve Pikiell will be facing his former program in Stony Brook, one in which he basically built from scratch, for the second consecutive year. Obviously last season's trip to the Long Island school was a very emotional night, but anytime Pikiell faces his old team, it's likely not going to be just another game for him. In addition to Pikiell and assistant coach Jay Young, support staff members David Van Dyke, Richard Campbell, Bryan Dougher and Steve Hayn all worked or played at Stony Brook.
In regards to this season's Seawolves team under Pikiell's replacement, second year head coach Jeff Boals, they are off to a 4-8 start. However, they've played a very difficult non-conference schedule, including defeats to #2 Michigan State and Maryland, as well as a single digit loss to UConn. In addition, Stony Brook played Providence to the wire in their last game on Sunday, losing 62-60 on the road. They will not be an opponent that comes in intimidated by Rutgers, that’s for sure.
This is a very important game for Pikiell and the program. An oft overlooked step in rebuilding a program is not just learning how to win, but to learn how to handle winning. The maturity and character of this team will be fully tested on Friday, in order to avoid a letdown and follow up the program’s biggest win in years with another step forward this season. Winning this game would be another mark of progress for Rutgers.
I actually think that it helps that Pikiell and so many staff members have ties to Stony Brook. This isn’t some random team coming in, but rather a solid mid-major that Rutgers’ own coach built into a winner. It’s less likely the players would come out flat as opposed to if the schedule was reversed and they were playing Hartford on Friday, a low major who visits the RAC next Tuesday instead. Corey Sanders confirmed on Wednesday’s call that there is plenty of motivation to beat Stony Brook:
“It’s going to be a big game. We’re going to go out there and fight our hearts out for coach. That was the school he was at prior to coming here, so there’s going to be a lot of emotions and they’re going to come in trying to give it their all. They’re a good team too. We’ve been watching some film on them, they’re a good team. We’re just going to have to come out and give it our all and get a win for coach.”
Just in case Pikiell needs to remind his team of how important it is to respond by playing well in this game after the Seton Hall upset victory, he has a Big Ten foe that can serve as an example of what not to do after a season best effort. Indiana had its biggest win of the season under first year head coach Archie Miller on Saturday in a come from behind upset of then #18 Notre Dame in overtime. They followed that game up by losing to Fort Wayne at home by 20 points after leading by 1 at the half.
Reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Week Geo Baker spoke Wednesday about the importance of being ready to play against Stony Brook and sounded like a veteran:
“I think the key with it is to not be satisfied with the win against Seton Hall. Even though it was a big win, we can’t really be complacent. We have to just keep coming out and playing our game. We can’t just be happy with beating Seton Hall, we have to keep it up.”
Pikiell continues to preach the core of what he has stressed since arriving at Rutgers before last season, defense and rebounding. Every team has bad shooting nights, with Rutgers having more than most, but having a foundation based on those two principles will make them a tough matchup for any opponent. Pikiell touched on this further:
“The good part is even the other day, I told them I didn’t think we played great, so there’s tremendous room for improvement in our program. We’re still figuring that out and what we want to do is continue to be good and tough in those areas that you can bring every night. That’s rebounding and defense. We’ve talked a lot about that. We’ve also talked about guys getting player of the week or rookie of the week, well that comes because you win. Winning is a product of those kinds of successes, so let’s continue to win and put that first and in order to do that, we have to be locked in on the defensive end of the floor. It’s something we can count on.”
Let’s hope that after the emotional high of beating its rival, followed by a long week of final exams ahead of Christmas, Rutgers comes out ready to play Friday night in what is likely to be a modest holiday crowd at the RAC. If the Scarlet Knights can win and then follow that up with a victory over Hartford next Tuesday, a bad team but one they barley beat with a C.J. Gettys putback in the final seconds last season, Rutgers will complete an unlikely 12-1 non-conference record. First, they need to tap into their identity and outplay Stony Brook behind defense and rebounding. They know the answer in order to ace this test, they just need to apply it.