On this last day of January, temperatures in New Jersey and a good portion of the country are in the single digits, with the wind chill in the negative teens. However, if you are a Rutgers men’s basketball fan, the cold on the outside isn’t preventing you from feeling warm and fuzzy on the inside. Let’s take a quick look at the Big Ten standings as of Thursday:
Let that graphic sink in for a minute. Rutgers accomplished the following with Wednesday night’s 66-58 victory over the Indiana Hoosiers:
- The first three game conference winning streak since joining the Big Ten and the first for the program since the 2003-2004 season.
- With four Big Ten regular season victories, Rutgers has eclipsed it’s previous best win total since joining the conference and the schedule is only halfway complete.
- Rutgers, last place finishers in the previous four seasons since joining the Big Ten, is currently in sole possession of 8th place.
- At 89th, Rutgers has the highest KenPom ranking the program has had since January 17, 2013. Rutgers hasn’t finished inside the Top 100 since the 2010-2011 season (78th).
- In the five seasons before Steve Pikiell arrived, Rutgers had 13 victories combined against KenPom Top 100 teams. Pikiell won his 13th last night, two-thirds through his third season.
- There is only one senior on the roster.
Exhale. Perhaps the last stat is the most encouraging. We are witnessing the development of a core group that has more future ahead of them in their Rutgers careers than they have in their past. It’s just the first season the roster has been overwhelmingly made up of players Pikiell brought to the program. Four freshman, a mid-major transfer and a JUCO big man are key contributors. KenPom has Rutgers listed as 322nd out of 353 Division I teams in regard to roster experience.
Take a wider lense view. This program was undeniably the worst high major men’s basketball program in the country in March 2016. Rutgers finished that season with its fewest wins in three decades with 7 and had a KenPom ranking of 279. Less than three years under Steve Pikiell, Rutgers is firmly in the middle of the pack of the Big Ten standings in a conference that statistically is the best in Division I this season.
That’s not to say everything is all lollipops and rainbows. The offense is still not what statisticians would refer to as close to average from an efficiency standpoint. Rutgers is shooting consistently in the low 40’s overall and mid-to-low 60’s from the free throw line. This team has no true point guard and can turn the ball over at a rate that is alarming, if not maddening.
And yet, the true differentiator has been this team’s identity. Simply put, they are playing with a togetherness and toughness that is making up for several deficiencies. They are mastering the art of winning ugly. They are figuring out the formula for success that works for them: dominate the boards; share the basketball, attack the rim and get to the free throw line; play lock down defense.
Having a strong will and embracing the blue collar style of play is personified in its head coach Steve Pikiell and captain Eugene Omoruyi. Pikiell’s personality is spread all over this team in the players he has recruited and the way this group plays together on the court. Omoruyi was an underrecruited prospect from Canada who has become the unquestioned heart and soul of this team, as well as a legitimate lead frontcourt player in the Big Ten.
It was less than two weeks ago that the season was on the ropes as Rutgers stood with an 8-9 record and 1-6 in Big Ten play. They had lost by a combined 53 points on a road trip to Minnesota and Purdue, followed by a disappointing loss at home to Northwestern. The players called a team meeting, Omoruyi returned from injury, and Rutgers is now riding a three game winning streak. Don't discount the hard work that Pikiell and the coaching staff has embedded within its players that has significantly changed the culture of this program. Without that, this team would have wilted, like so many Rutgers teams before them.
Now there is still a lot of work to be done before Rutgers becomes a winning program. The odds of them breaking a 13 year streak without a winning record this season is at best at 50% and probably realistically less than that. Guess what, even if it doesn’t happen this season, progress has undoubtedly been made already. We all want more to occur the rest of the season and some certainly will, but keep those NIT dreams in the back of your mind for at least this year. As a reference point, Maryland wasn’t selected for the NIT last season with a 19-13 record and Big Ten entries Penn State and Nebraska had 21 and 22 wins respectively.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be excited about Rutgers being in eighth place and a 4-6 record in conference play. It’s not a losers mentality as some like to spout because this program has been so low in the past and for so long. This three game winning streak marks significant progress and the hope that comes with it is a beautiful thing.
Pikiell inherited a perennial losing program with a history of coaches spanning two decades who either were fired for scandal or incompetence. After the Rice scandal, which was a national story and damaging, our own (former) Governor publicly contemplated shutting down the program. A lack of support from the administration has spanned decades. I don’t know for sure, but I think Rutgers is the only high major program that still practices on its home arena’s court and not a separate practice facility (that will change this summer). The program had ZERO recruiting presence before his arrival.
I still don’t think people truly understand how far off the map Rutgers basketball had fallen in recruiting circles. Before Pikiell, Ill-advised strategies in targeting top players who would never come here and tossing aside hungry, less recruited local recruits while failing to build any relationships with high school and AAU programs in the tri-state area put Rutgers farther behind than ever before. There were several players on the roster left by Eddie Jordan that not only weren’t high major players, they didn’t even land elsewhere with a Division I program. I’ve joked many times that Pikiell didn’t start at the ground floor with recruiting, he started six feet under. He is still overcoming some of that today and needs to keeping improving the talent on the roster, but adding New Jersey recruits like Ron Harper Jr. and Paul Mulcahy, as well as consensus Top 100 recruit Montez Mathis has shown major progress on the recruiting trail.
Where Rutgers was when Pikiell took over and where they are today, the last day of January in his third season, with one of the most inexperienced teams in the country, is something all fans should appreciate. As Dave White reminds us often, enjoy the build, even when wins aren’t occurring. Now that they are, hope for the future is growing, as it should.
Enjoy the journey. No rebuild has a consistent trajectory of pointing up. Stumbles and frustrating losses will occur before the season is over. This team is still learning. Pikiell and Rutgers have plenty of progress still to make before this team and program become a consistent winner. However, with a core group that is learning to win together, two key pieces in Jacob Young and Paul Mulcahy being added next season, along with one additional scholarship to fill, things are looking up! Way up! Year three is when you want to see tangible markers of progress being met or exceeded. With 10 regular season games to play, Steve Pikiell has Rutgers in a place that the program hasn’t been in many years: respectable. For fans of all ages that have followed this team, whether it’s been for a few years or a few decades, it all translates the same. Major progress!