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Time to throw caution to the wind with Rutgers men’s basketball

This team is for real and embrace the excitement that comes with it.

Penn State v Rutgers Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

This is not a drill. Things are happening with the Rutgers men’s basketball team and enjoying the journey that is the rebuilding of this program has never been easier. After beginning the 2019-2020 season with a 12-3 record and 3-1 mark in Big Ten play following Tuesday night’s victory over no. 20 Penn State, it’s fair for fans to check the GPS to make sure this season so far is actually real. You aren’t dreaming after all.

Here is a quick summary of the history taking place so far this season:

  • Best 15 game start to a season since the 1975-1976 Final Four campaign.
  • Best start in the Big Ten since joining the conference in 2014.
  • First time Rutgers is two games over .500 in conference play since February 2002.
  • Defeated two ranked teams by double digits in the same season for the first time in program history.
  • Only unranked team in the country to defeat two ranked foes in the AP Top 25 by double digits this season.
  • First time Rutgers has beaten multiple ranked teams in consecutive years since the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 seasons.
  • First time they’ve beaten four high major teams in a row since the 2003-2004 season.
  • The current KenPom ranking of 37th is the highest in program history.
  • NET ranking of 20th is program best as well.
  • First time considered to have a legitimate NCAA Tournament contender since 2005-2006 season.

The fact that there are still 16 games remaining in the regular season and Rutgers has accomplished this much already is astounding. They are currently in a second place tie with no. 12 Maryland in the Big Ten standings and they’ve won six games in a row, including the last two without captain Geo Baker. Oh and this comes in a season that Rutgers unexpectedly lost its leading scorer and rebounder over the summer and never replaced him. Unbelievable.

In regard to this season so far, I’ve received some comments on social media about taking things slower, imploring a one game at a time approach, and that nothing good can come from looking ahead at the possibilities that may present themselves once the calendar turns to March. My official response to that line of thinking is I’m sorry for your pain and it’s time to heal.

I’ve long stated Rutgers fans, myself included, as “long suffering”, which if we are specifically addressing basketball, long could be defined as recently as the mid-2010’s during the Eddie Jordan Era. Even despite progress that Steve Pikiell made in rebuilding this program the first three seasons, there were painful moments, none harder to swallow than last season’s three game losing streak in the most meaningful March around these parts in years. No one should be blamed for being battle weary if you’ve rooted for Rutgers basketball for any margin of time.

I’m confident in stating this March will be even more meaningful than last year and the most in many years. How much more so remains to be seen. At a minimum, the 14 year drought without a winning season is just five more victories away from being no more. Win a couple more than that and the NIT seems a lock with a spot on the NCAA Tournament bubble officially awaiting as well.

There will be losses ahead, perhaps even a setback or two. However, waiting for the other shoe to drop because Rutgers basketball has been historically bad for most of the previous three decades plus is not the right approach. This team is different for one main reason: Steve Pikiell is the head coach. The ultimate grind it out coach has created a team that plays together and for each other, is fully committed on the defensive end, rebounds in droves and has learned to play to its strengths offensively. Not to mention the players he has recruited are as likable a group that I can remember on one Rutgers team. Simply put, the head coach just gets it and so do his players.

If you choose to block out the growing hype, the multiple national projections that state that Rutgers is firmly considered an NCAA Tournament team as of today, and the growing respect that this team is earning, that is your choice. Spend the next two months curled up bracing for the collapse if you must, but is that a fun way to live? I think not and I’m confident in saying there is no epic failure ahead.

It’s not happening, not with this team. That’s not to say they will definitely break the 29 year NCAA Tournament drought, but it’s hard to see this team falling short of preseason expectations, which were to produce a winning record and earn an NIT invite. That has now become as close to a worst case scenario for the end result as there is for this team. Rutgers has a 3-1 record against Quad 1 opponents, a major factor with the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee and the best in the Big Ten. That’s a clear sign this team is not what it used to be.

It’s not just those type of stats that make it clear this team is different. It’s the improvement we’ve witnessed with our own eyes. I had a well respected scout who watched Myles Johnson play in high school many times tell me he didn’t think he was a high major player when he arrived at Rutgers. Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker had one other high major offer each aside from Rutgers. Those three players are the best on the team. Caleb McConnell had no major offers. The job that the coaching staff has done in directing the development of all the players has been phenomenal.

Paul Mulcahy, while being a coveted recruit, was not looking like a player likely to contribute much this year back in the preseason. That was my opinion based on seeing him in practice, as well as from others who watched him. Through 15 games, Mulcahy is shooting 60% from the floor, 36% from three-point range and has an absurd 3.5 to 1 assist to turnover ratio. Whenever he is on the court, he brings a different element to the offense and makes everyone around him better. The sky is the limit for him and you could argue that truth with several other players as well.

I wrote three and a half years ago in this article that Rutgers fans needed to embrace the reality of the situation of being at the bottom of the Big Ten barrel by a wide margin in most sports and that embracing the journey upwards should be the focus. Well, here we are with the men’s basketball team and no one should apologize for having unbridled excitement for the current state of things one week into 2020. As Steve Pikiell likes to say, “Enjoy the journey”. Listen to coach.

Revel in Big Ten fan bases not knowing what hit them after their traditionally better team is handed an L by the former doormat of the league. Smile wide when you read national writers and analysts heaping praise on this Rutgers team. It’s a beautiful thing.

This is a basketball team that has gone from by far the worst high major program in the country at the end of the 2016 season (KenPom ranking of 279th) to one of the toughest in Division I as of today (37th KenPom ranking). No one in the Big Ten wants to play Rutgers right now. The depth of the roster is really something, as seven different players have led the team in scoring in games this season. They continue to grind out games, just like their coach has during this entire rebuilding process. This team is so tough that Rutgers isn’t just pounding nails, they are eating them for breakfast.

No matter how the 2019-2020 season ultimately unfolds, enjoy the ride. Throw caution to the wind, take a deep breath, and let the reality of the day hit you like a cool breeze on a summer’s day. Rutgers basketball is relevant again, good again, and hope should be happily alive and well. Even if they fall short of the NCAA Tournament, this season already has brought a level of joy this past month that Rutgers fans haven’t experienced in a long time. Better days are still ahead, but better days have also already arrived.