Let me preface this by saying Rutgers football is and will always be my first love. To this day most of my online passwords are still some combination of “Lucas” as in Ray Lucas, my favorite football player of all time. But over the course of the last ten years or so, the basketball program has slowly but surely found a soft spot in my heart. Curiously, it’s not because the program has been successful. If anything it’s been anything but successful. The Eddie Jordan era pulled on the strings of my heart and played with my emotions. There were so many reasons to be optimistic except if you actually watched the games. The final season was tough to watch and I may or may not have lost my mind calling a few of the local radio stations for a post-game vent session.
When Coach Pikiell took over the program I had a certain level of apprehension. After all, if a Rutgers alumni like Eddie Jordan couldn’t turn the program around, what chance did Coach Pikiell have? But I’ll be the first to admit I was completely wrong. Watching the team last season claw and fight all season long, gave me a renewed sense of optimism. March Madness isn’t around the corner but it is on the horizon.
This is my first article for On The Banks and while I can’t promise that there won’t be grammatical errors, I can promise that I’ll give an honest and fair take from the point of view of an average fan like yourself.
Below you’ll find my four year plan of how Rutgers can make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991. Sounds crazy right? Keep reading.
My initial expectations were to see how the team would react to a new coach and what kind of an effort coach Pikiell would get out of them. I think it was justifiable to have tepid expectations for season one. Anyone who watched the final season under Eddie Jordan saw that it was nothing short of a disaster. Needless to say even the most optimistic Rutgers fans would have their fair share of apprehension going into the first season under a new coaching staff. But the difference was immediate. The effort and heart they exhibited last season was the antithesis of what fans saw under the Eddie regime. But it wasn't perfect. They took their licks and had games where they came out just plain flat. At Michigan State they got thumped by almost thirty points. The disappointing New Year's Day game at home against Penn State, which I picked them to win. But for the most part they played with energy and a fire that they lacked the previous year. Add a highly sought after recruiting class and the future looks bright.
Rutgers will need to start closing out the games they let slip away last season in the final minutes to increase their win total for a second straight season. With second leading scorer Nigel Johnson transferring out, the burden of putting points on the board will fall squarely on shoulders of Corey Sanders, Deshawn Freeman and Mike Williams. Those three key starters, along with Coach Pikiell’s ability to mix and match lineups, will create an interesting dynamic that should keep opponents on their toes.
Looking at the schedule, I think it's realistic to expect them to get go 12-3 into the New Year. I have them losing to Florida State, Minnesota and Michigan State with the Seton Hall being a toss-up game that ultimately Rutgers finds a way to win.
From there, I think you have to take it game by game. But the way they competed last year and even led going into the final few minutes of games, I'd have to give them at least three or four conference wins. Anything .500 or above in year two would be a major step in the right direction. And while I do think an NIT invite is not going to happen this year, I do believe it is on the horizon.
By year three the Eddie Jordan era seems like a distant memory and while March Madness might be a few years away, the NIT is a realistic goal and one that I believe they achieve for the first time since 2006. The pieces are in place and the program has never been in better hands. Getting to the NIT is the first significant step in defining a new age of the basketball program. Four star recruit Montez Mathis is finally on campus and makes an immediate impact. Mac McClung becomes the new quarterback of the offense and with another year of experience under his belt, Geo Baker becomes the new face of the program.
Although Rutgers may get bounced in the first round of the NIT, their progress in just three years under Coach Pikiell has set them up for years of future success.
I know it sounds crazy to think of Rutgers making it to March Madness but at the rate the program has changed in a matter of a few years, I can’t help but think this is the year we are finally dancing. Even thought it took Coach Pikiell eleven years to get Stony Brook into March Madness, the talent around this program is much greater. This isn’t a program that needs to win the Big Ten to make the dance. If they can win greater than .500 of their conference games and put together a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament that’s more than enough to get them into post season play as a 9/10 seed. And regardless of whether or not they lose in the first round, just making the tournament would be a monumental accomplishment for Rutgers. Don’t forget this was a program not too long ago that many thought of as the worst in Division 1. The changes I’ve witnessed in just one year lead me to believe the sky is the limit for this program. I believe in Coach Pikiell more than any other coach in previous years. Bookmark this page and share with friends. Only three more years until you can rub it in their faces.