We are finally here hoops fans, as the Rutgers men’s basketball team tips off the 2019-2020 season on Thursday night at home against Bryant. Steve Pikiell’s fourth season at the helm brings great expectations. Ending a fourteen year period without a winning record and postseason appearance hopefully comes to end this coming March.
Rutgers was on the cusp of doing so last season, but a young team with a 14-14 record hit a wall and lost the last three games of the season. The half glass full view is that type of disappointment can benefit this team this season.
Last week at media day hosted by the program, I asked junior guard and captain Geo Baker about the adversity this team faced at the end of last season, including the dismissal of Issa Thiam and surprise transfer out by Eugene Omoruyi. Baker said, “We were a young team last year that kind of broke down at the end of the season. I think guys have learned from that. The important thing is learning from what you did wrong so you can make it right. In terms of Issa and Gene being gone, we are focused on the guys we have here. I’m focused on who can help us. We can’t focus on the guys that aren’t here. I’m just excited to get going.”
In regard to what Baker specifically learned after last season, he stated “I’m just ready to win. That’s all I’ve been thinking about since last season ended. I’ve been trying to sacrifice as much as a I can. Doing things differently, because obviously what we were doing before wasn’t working. We have to figure out a different way to win. I think all the guys are on the same page. We are ready to win. We are all ready to take the next step.”
Sophomore wing Ron Harper Jr. is expected to play at a higher level this season after a promising end to his debut campaign and development in the offseason. He said the team has embraced the challenge of accomplishing more this season, stating “The goals and expectations are definitely bigger. We are all here for it. We want to do everything that coach Pikiell wants us to do. We want to be better as a team. We just want to win everyday and get better everyday. That’s the goal”
If you are a longtime fan of Rutgers basketball, that should be music to your ears. The question is whether this team can take that next step up the Big Ten ladder this season?
With as deep a backcourt as the program has had in years, a sophomore class poised to show major improvement, and intriguing additions in Jacob Young, Akwasi Yeboah and Paul Mulcahy, there should be real hope they can.
In our staff round table season predictions article from earlier this week, every contributor projected a winning record. The non-conference schedule is something Rutgers must take advantage of to achieve a winning season, but it could also hurt their chances if they did find themselves on the NCAA Tournament bubble in March. This team must avoid the dreaded bad non-conference losses they’ve suffered the past two seasons.
The other factor is the Big Ten really is a bit wide open this season. Maryland is loaded, as is Michigan State, who are dealing with injuries already. How the rest of the league shakes out should be very unpredictable. That’s the type of landscape that can favor an upstart team like Rutgers that is hungry to have a breakthrough season.
Of course, leadership will be key for this team to stay level and endure the inevitable ups and downs that the college basketball season brings. Baker explained that keeping things simple is the key. He said, “Our team goal is to beat Bryant right now. I want to go 1-0 every game. That’s the mindset I’ve been trying to take this year. I think the past couple of years I was thinking too much about the overall picture and that hasn’t really been working. Right now, I want to focus on one game at a time. Our most important game right now is against Bryant. If we go 1-0 every game, we will be right where we want to be.
Don’t have flashbacks of Kyle Flood, my friends. This is different. For a team that is still learning to win, this is absolutely the right approach. They have big goals, but have learned they cannot get ahead of themselves. As Dave White warned, fans need to have the same approach. The most important thing is that the best players on the team have selfless attitudes.
When I asked Harper about his personal goals versus team goals this season, he explained, “I don’t really have any. Personal goals come to those that win games. If we have a team that wins games, take this team to the tournament and go to places we are aiming for, personal goals will come. Team accolades over personal goals everyday. We are trying to go to the dance this year and I’m going to try and be a leader in that pursuit.”
Staying focused on the day to day while maintaining a team focus overall is something that Rutgers teams have struggled with over the years, derailing once promising seasons by letting outside distractions creep in. The adversity of last season could be a blessing for this team and they are on a mission.
When I asked Baker the same questions as Harper, he echoed his sentiment but took it a step further. “Personal goals are that I just want to be the best player I can be. If I do all the right things, I know the season will take care of itself. We are going to make history as a team and I’m going to make history as a player. We talk about it everyday. Our mission is to dance. We want to make history. We would be remembered forever here and every player wants to do that.”
Their journey to do just that, something Rutgers hasn’t done in 29 seasons, begins on Thursday night at the RAC.