Incredibly, Rutgers sits at 14-14 overall and 7-11 in the Big Ten. They have two winnable, but certainly not easy, games left. I have lots of thoughts on the state of things with Rutgers basketball, and I thought I’d share 4 of them here.
This is So Much Fun: I keep coming back to this fact. This season is the most fun I’ve had since at least the first year of Mike Rice, and perhaps since 2006. Every game is a tense battle and you never feel like Rutgers is out of it. The team is so likable, and at the same time shows a ton of grit. You can tell they want to win and find different ways to do it. As soon as next year, this team is going to face some expectations and that going to add pressure to the season. So, Rutgers fans, enjoy this year. There’s nothing to lose and everything to gain. Have fun for the next 3 games or more, fans.
The Turning Point: A lot of people are going to point to the players only meeting that Eugene Omoruyi conducted at the Northwestern game. Yes, that was a key moment, but I think the actual turning point came slightly before that. After losing to Northwestern, Geo Baker was absolutely not going to accept losing this way again. “No matter what, we’re not getting last place in this league,” he said to the press. It seemed to me that this was the moment Baker woke up. The team realized the amount of effort they needed to bring night in and night out. Yes, an upset of Ohio State was awesome, but it was going to take that kind of energy every game. That, coupled with the Omoruyi meeting, truly sorted out roles and got the team to click into place.
The Development of the Freshmen and Geo Baker: A lot of people were calling for Montez Mathis, Ron Harper Jr and Caleb McConnell to start from Day 1. But Steve Pikiell didn’t put that kind of pressure on them. Instead, he brought them along slowly. Early in the season, it was clear there were a lot of growing pains for all three freshman and Baker as well. Baker had to adjust to a new role as point guard and the three freshmen had to learn the speed of the college game. By bringing the froshies along slowly, it allowed them to adjust at their own pace. Now two of the three are starting, and McConnell and redshirt freshman Myles Johnson are playing big roles off the bench. Meanwhile, Baker is learning he doesn’t have to have a dominant scoring day to control a game. In both Iowa matches, he didn’t score a ton (but did have key baskets), yet he dished out assists, rebounded and defended. What does this mean? Well, in the first place, it is the sign of progress for this season, but it also gives fans a blueprint of what to look for in incoming point guard Paul Mulcahy. Mulcahy will be a great player at Rutgers, and he will truly give Baker some days off at point, but I expect him to be brought along slowly as well—unless he’s ready to go from MidKnight Madness. Baker becoming more of point guard and Mathis, Harper, McConnell and Johnson becoming fixtures will allow others to grow into their games while still competing every night. Two months ago, I would have said there was no way Baker started at point next season. Now I’m not so sure.
What’s Left?: Two regular season games, Penn State and Indiana are winnable games. As I said earlier, they aren’t easy however. I think the RAC will be sold out on Wednesday and with all the momentum in the world on Rutgers side, the crowd should make the building a madhouse. Look for a muck ‘em up defensive battle on both sides. The Indiana game is a true crapshoot. The Hoosiers are playing well again, but they aren’t what they expected to be earlier in the season. I think Rutgers is going to come to play for both games, though they could go 2-0, 1-1 or 0-2. Then comes the Big Ten Tournament. There is a legitimate chance for Rutgers to finish over .500 for the first time in 13 years. There was no way I thought that could happen this season. Rutgers is even being talked about as an NIT bubble team. That is just insane. Insane. It is so exciting to be a Rutgers basketball fan, finally. There is hope. I can’t believe the season is almost finished. I don’t want it to end. I want there to be more basketball. The future is bright for Steve Pikiell, the Scarlet Knights and, finally, Rutgers fans.