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Rutgers Men’s Basketball Hype Train Already Leaving The Station

As East coast temperatures continue to rise, so do expectations for next season

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NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

We are just now arriving at Memorial Day weekend, but the optimism around the Rutgers men’s basketball program is already in full bloom. Next season is the most anticipated in many years and postseason aspirations are warranted. Entering year four of the Steve Pikiell era, the foundation is solid to the point that his pledge upon being hired that he would make Rutgers dance in March seems more of a question of when, not if. Whether that happens next season or not remains to be seen, but the fact is that the national media is taking notice of the program and helping to raise expectations for the program moving forward.

The bigger point though is this isn’t just about next season. Real expectations for Rutgers basketball have arrived and will be present for the foreseeable future. A roster that returns its top eight scorers with only two entering their last season of eligibility, along with the additions of grad transfer Akwasi Yeboah, Texas transfer Jacob Young and playmaking point guard Paul Mulcahy, make that a fair expectation. The program is doing it’s own hyping up of Mulcahy, who had a tremendous senior year in his last scholastic season. He is clearly going to be the key to Pikeil’s vision moving forward due to his versatility and skill level.

What I didn’t expect was that expectations from the national media would be so positive at this point of the offseason.

It started in mid-April when Sports Illustrated named Rutgers the most improved team in college basketball last season in its year-end review article. They ended their paragraph on the Scarlet Knights with this: “With only one rotation player graduating (Shaquille Doorson), sunnier skies finally look to be on the way in Piscataway.” I can’t remember the last time a national publication singled out Rutgers basketball in a positive way, so this was certainly a pleasant surprise.

Soon after, Brent Yarina of the Big Ten Network tweeted out the following a few weeks ago. Mind you this was before Yeboah committed to Rutgers.

My jaw dropped when I read his tweet. Times are changing for the better, as perception across the conference regarding Rutgers is shifting upward. That we knew after last season, but to read the senior producer for make such a boldly positive statement was a bit mind blowing. BTN in particular has been extremely positive about the program’s strides this past season under Pikiell. It’s no secret a respectable Rutgers team makes the Big Ten a stronger conference, but they’ve also earned the optimism being broadcast by the conference’s network.

Last week, the advanced statistics site run by Bart Torvik published projections for next season. Rutgers was ranked 36th in Division I basketball for next season. The ranking included a projected adjusted offensive efficiency rating of 112.2, which if achieved, would be the highest Rutgers ever produced dating back to the beginning of the KenPom era in the 2001-2002 season. For a frame of reference, Rutgers had an offensive efficiency rating of 105.6 last season, which ranked 152nd in Division I and was the program’s best result in five years. It’s certainly possible with such a young nucleus and added playmakers that Rutgers can take another sizeable step forward next season. The projected defensive efficiency rating of 95.7 would be the best mark achieved since the 2002-2003 season. The site projects an 18-12 record overall and 10-10 in the Big Ten. While it seems fair and also realistic, it’s still a bit surreal to see an analytics site making that type of projection. In fact, you could argue it carries even more weight that the analysts that are speaking highly of Rutgers.

This past week, CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein talked about Rutgers on his weekly podcast, referring to them as “an interesting story in the Big Ten” last season. As for his view on the program for next season, Rothstein bluntly stated that Rutgers “needs to make the postseason in 2020 to make tangible strides moving forward as a program.” He went on to say being an NIT team or on the NCAA bubble should be the goal for next season.

All of this media attention should be a big deal for a fan base starving for success. Rutgers hasn’t had a winning season since 2006 and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1991. Steve Pikiell arrived just over three years ago, taking over without question the worst high major program in the nation. He inherited a Rutgers team that had a KenPom ranking of 279th out of 351 Division I teams at the end of the 2015-2016 season.

This is common knowledge, but I think it gets dismissed too easily when some have been critical that not enough progress was made last season. Rutgers showed a lot of promise and actually produced solid conference wins for the first time since joining the Big Ten, including winning seven league regular season contests, more than double the previous win totals for the four previous years in the conference. Yes, the expectations were low, but that shouldn’t undercut the accomplishment in overachieving them significantly. They were a flawed team last season that achieved more than what was expected of them and achieved something rare in the past decade for Rutgers fans. They made us proud and hopeful.

The fruits of Pikiell’s labor has started to blossom and this offseason is hugely important to it ripening for next season. While much of the talk has been about the development of the roster, both the individual players and as a team, it’s a massive opportunity for Pikiell as well. He will begin the season with his most talented team ever in one of the two or three best conferences in college basketball. Lineup possiblibities seem endless. How he manages the expectations of the team and how he guides his players is just as important to how much Rutgers improves shooting the basketball next season. They won’t sneak up on anyone beginning in November, that’s for sure. Learning how to win when you are expected to and managing minutes with a deep rotation at his disposal requires a deft hand.

Managing expectations is not about talent, depth and x’s and o’s. It’s about leadership, maturity as a team, and coaching. As much as we discuss which players will make a leap in their development next season, I’m excited about the opportunity Pikiell has to develop as a coach. This is a monumental moment in his coaching career and one that he is prepared for. He came to Rutgers with a plan and while there have been missteps along the way, Pikiell has far exceeded any mistakes by making many more right moves. Next season, his fourth at the helm, is when his team is poised to break out, and if they do, he will do the same as a coach as well. His ability to add talent, get his players to believe and play a hard nosed, team first style should breed confidence the logical next step is to meet the somewhat lofty expectations being placed on a program far removed from real success.

The RWJ Barnabas Health Athletic Performance Center, which will be the new practice facility for men’s and women’s basketball, wrestling, and gymnastics, opens in July. Hopefully, it will help extend recruiting success and the positive perception that the program has assumed under Pikiell.

There is still an open scholarship available for next season and an assistant coaching spot to fill. (Editor’s note: Steve Hayn was reportedly promoted on a Friday.) Scheduling for next season remains a work in progress and will not include a contest in the Gavitt Games against a Big East opponent, per Jerry Carino. However, it’s fair to look at the Big Ten matchups and believe 10 wins is a legitimate possibility and perhaps even more. The proposed change regarding the distance of the three-point line could play right into the preferred style of play for the Scarlet Knights next season

It’s an exciting time to be a Rutgers basketball fan. Expectations have already grown since last season’s disappointing end. At this rate, they won’t be a trendy sleeper pick for the postseason by October, Rutgers will be a consensus contender among pundits. As a fan base, we should enjoy this offseason. While keeping our own expectations in check is a must, having dreams of dancing in our heads is okay too. For the first time in a very long time, it’s not such a crazy idea.

Update: In a stunning development, leading scorer and rebounder Eugene Omoruyi announced his intentions to transfer on May 29th.