The Rutgers men’s basketball team enters the 2020-2021 season with great expectations and are ranked in the preseason AP Poll for the first time in 42 years. With six key contributors from last season’s 20 win team and a top 40 recruiting class, there is legitimate reason to dream big this winter.
Of course, the global pandemic that is COVID-19 rages on and how many games any college basketball team plays this season remains to be seen. November 25 is the official start of the season and Rutgers is scheduled to host Sacred Heart. However, with several local programs shutdown due to the coronavirus, including Seton Hall and Rider, there is no guarantee the game will be played as scheduled. Regardless, head coach Steve Pikiell was as calm and optimistic about his team’s outlook this season as he has ever been entering his fifth year on the banks.
On Friday, the program held a virtual media day and regarding being ranked in the preseason polls, Pikiell said, “I think it’s a compliment to our players and how hard they have worked to have changed the narrative of Rutgers basketball. They’ve sacrificed a lot. We have guys now on watch lists, we have freshman that people are talking about. It’s a credit to my staff and I’m very thankful they are all back. None of those things mean anything once the ball goes up on the 25th. Rankings and lists. Then you have to do all the hard work.”
Despite a disjointed offseason that didn’t begin until June with voluntary workouts, Pikiell was adamant he felt his players have improved, stating “all of our guys got better.” His focus on bringing players to the program with a “gym rat” mentality helped this team deal with the unique situation. They worked hard individually when they were home and have been in the practice facility (APC) as much as possible since they’ve returned to campus.
Last season’s ending that resulted in the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament has been a driving force in the team’s preparation for the new season ahead. Ron Harper Jr., who is one of twenty players nationally to be included on the Julius Erving Award Watch List for best small forward, made it clear the team has unfinished business to attend to. “We’re hungry. We’re hungry because this team has a lot of under recruited and underrated guys. That chip on our shoulder got even bigger when they cancelled the tournament because it cancelled something we’ve been working our whole lives for. We wanted to prove people wrong and to prove we could do it. It got taken away from us.”
As to what how it’s brought this year’s team closer, Harper Jr. explained, “Everyone in the locker room remembers that feeling. The freshman wanted to watch us play last year in March Madness too, so we are all hungry. The streak grew one year older and we are excited to break it.”
Guard Montez Mathis agreed, stating “We are hungry. Everyone is working hard every day. There is positive energy in the locker room. That’s something we talk about every day in practice. We are hungry to get to the tournament this year.”
Center Myles Johnson took it a step further, explaining “We definitely have the mindset that last season we made the tournament. I don’t think anything has really changed. We still have the mindset that we are going to make the tournament, just as we would any other season. Especially now that we feel like we really did make it last season, we can do it again this season with the same team and same mindset. We’ve added more players and I just think we’ll have the same mindset where we left off at in the Big Ten Tournament.”
Pikiell put the goals for the team even into more focus, proclaiming his message to the team is, “Let’s enjoy this season. Let’s have the greatest season hopefully in Rutgers basketball history. That’s what we want to try and do.”
When it was brought up that doing that would mean eclipsing the Final Four run that the 1975-1976 team made all those years ago, Pikiell didn’t back down. “Obviously every team starts the year off like that. The Big Ten wins national championships. That’t the league we are in. Final Four’s, that’s the league we are in. Hall of Fame basketball coaches. We have those kind of goals too.
Pikiell has often said during his tenure at Rutgers that the Big Ten is the best league in the country, but this is the first time he has matched up his own team’s goals with the best teams in the conference.
He explained, “I’ve never said these things aren’t easy. Everyone is trying to do it. There are a lot of great teams and great programs out there. But that’s the exciting part of basketball. When you start off a season, those are your goals. Go to the NCAA Tournament and compete for national championships. That’s the goal. It’s why I wanted to coach in this league and come to this great university. You guys will write about it, but you have to do it on the court. I’m lucky. I think every coach in our league starts off with those goals, I really do believe that.”
Pikiell’s confidence and belief in his team was echoed by his top two seniors.
Guard Jacob Young made sure there was no denying what the ultimate destination was while admitting last season is a driving force. He said “Our main goal is to win a national championship. We would love to reverse last year. First time in a long time it would have been going to the tournament. It’s still a little itch that we carry that we wish we would have played in it. As far as everything else goes, I feel like everyone is focused on this year and doing bigger and better things than we did last year.”
It’s clear that the unquestioned leader of this team, Geo Baker, also named to the Bob Cousy Award Watch List for the nation’s top point guard and is the first ever Rutgers player named to the Big Ten preseason honors list, reaffirmed his coach’s statement. “In our minds, we felt we accomplished our goal of making the tournament last year. When you accomplish one goal, it opens up the door for another one. I feel like our goals are way bigger than that this year.” Baker continued, “We always say ‘national championship’ when we break (the huddle). Those are the things we are thinking about now. We aren’t even really thinking about the tournament. We are thinking about how are we going to win games in the tournament. That’s our mindset now. We feel like we already accomplished that goal (making the NCAA Tournament) and we are just trying to take it to another level.”
While this team is comprised of a deep, talented and versatile roster, they’ve also become extremely confident. It’s a veteran group that has dealt with a lot of adversity together and a belief in one another has been the result. They want to write their own history at Rutgers and change the perception of the program long term. Although this season brings plenty of uncertainty regarding how the schedule will play out, their ultimate destination of where they plan to be at the end of it is clear.
(On Tuesday, Rutgers was voted to finish in fifth place in the unofficial Big Ten preseason media poll.)