Monday was a big day for the Rutgers men’s basketball team. Hours before tipping off against Maryland, they moved up the national rankings two spots to no. 19, falling into the AP Poll Top 20 for the first time since 1979. Soon after, they moved up to no. 17 in the Coaches Poll. On the court, Rutgers beat Maryland on the road for the first time ever as Big Ten foes and for only the second time ever, the last coming in 1941. The victory meant the Scarlet Knights started Big Ten play with a 1-0 record for the first time since joining the league in 2014. RU has now started this season with five consecutive double digit victories for the first time since the 1934-1935 campaign.
While all of these achievements mean little in the big picture view for this team and what they can accomplish this season, they should be appreciated as they happen. Heck, back to back wins over Syracuse and Maryland, despite those programs not being at their peak, would have been cause for major celebration in prior years. For any Rutgers fan that has lived through even just one season of misery through the years, the current state of this team is extraordinary. And it is not due to any freak luck, breaking of curses or quick fix.
Steve Pikiell has taken this program from six feet under to the sky is the limit not by accident, but with a proven recipe for success.
Pikiell harped on the importance of having built the program from the ground up through player development, stating “I think a lot of our guys development has helped us a ton. Montez is better. Jacob Young is better. Paul is better. All these guys are better. Ron, every year now he has gotten better.”
A key of course has been Pikiell stocking the roster with players that are good fits for his style and program. They’ve all bought into the work ethic and culture he established. Now the results are snowballing into success.
The fifth year head coach of Rutgers explained, “I want all of our guys to continue to improve. I think we do a good job of developing players and (Ron) is a perfect example of that. I think all of our guys that have returned have gotten better. That’s a real positive. They need to continue doing that and our young guys have to keep getting better. (A) sign of a good program that develops guys.”
On the win over Maryland, Pikiell cited a team effort, saying “Any time you can hold a team that averages 78 points to 60, it’s a good sign for our defense. I think our defense has been getting better, but it really sat down in the second half. Once we weren’t fouling them, I thought we did a good job. Geo, tip of the hat. Myles gets a double-double. Ron does what he does. Montez guards. Jacob guards. Paul does all that he does that makes us win. Everyone chipped in. A tough road win. I love the way we grinded it the whole 40 minutes.”
Geo Baker returned after just two practices and was steady, scoring 15 points on 6 of 14 shooting, including 3 of 6 from three-point range along with 3 rebounds, 3 assists and 0 turnovers. Obviously his presence makes this team better and it’s huge that he was able to return at the start of conference play.
On Baker’s return, Ron Harper Jr. said “It meant a lot to us. He fought hard to get back healthy these past couple weeks. He really showed that he really wanted to be out there. It’s all about sacrifices. He sacrificed for this team today and him being back was big.”
Pikiell added, “It was great to have him back to have our full complement of guys.”
Harper Jr. continued to emerge as one of the best players in college basketball season. He delivered his third performance in scoring 25 or more points, finishing with 27 points on 10 of 17 shooting, including 5 of 8 from three, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 blocks, 1 steal and just 1 turnover.
Baker said of Harper Jr.’s development, “He is a star. I didn’t even realize how many points he had during the game. I was so into it. From the sideline while I was injured, it’s just crazy how much of a star he is. When you have a guy like that it’s so easy to call plays for him and get him the ball, he is going to do the rest. It’s great to see what he has grown into. I still think he has better basketball ahead of him too which is the greatest part about it.”
Myles Johnson produced a monster game inside with 10 points without missing a shot (4-4 FG, 2-2 FT) while dominating on the boards with 16 rebounds, along with 2 blocked shots that seemed like 10. The fourth year big man has come off the bench in every game this season behind heralded freshman Cliff Omoruyi but has put the team above himself.
Baker explained why it’s been a key part to the success and identity for Rutgers, stating “That’s the great part about this team. You have a guy like Myles who is so dominant and yet he is so happy for Cliff to be starting at that position. He is so happy to come in and make such an impact like that. It’s a sign of being a true veteran. I think he embraces that role.”
The thing about this Rutgers team that stands out above else is the experience and maturity that the veterans bring. They’ve been through some heartbreaking losses the previous two seasons as well as adversity off the court. For guys like Baker and Johnson, they’ve also experienced last place finishes in Big Ten play. Surviving those tough times and improving the way they have has changed this team’s mindset.
Baker said “We’re an extremely confident team. We really felt good coming into this game. We feel good coming into every game. You saw that experience out there at the end. That really helped us down the stretch. The Big Ten is old. This is the first time we’ve been an old team. It just helps us a lot in these type of games, especially on the road.”
Throughout the years, college basketball teams stocked with juniors and seniors have success when it matters most....in March. Rutgers finally has a team full of experienced players who have learned to win.
Pikiell added, “I love the way we played together. Even when the obstacles hit us during this game, we stayed the course.”
Johnson reflected on where Rutgers was when he arrived to now, explaining “Speaking on the journey, when I first got here, it wasn’t the prettiest. We were in the basement and I think now we are making big noise. It’s the highest we’ve been ranked in a long time. We are beating teams on the road. 1-0 Big Ten squad. Overall, that confidence that I think we are one of the best teams in the nation. Just going into each game with that confidence, the results are showing. We have gotten off to a great start this season.”
Harper Jr. touched on the importance of bringing their best every game, saying “I think it’s always important for us to bring the best product we can onto the court. We don’t really look at the rankings next to our name because we know everyone in the Big Ten is a great opponent. We just have to go into that game with a chip on our shoulder. We are a lot of under recruited guys that are hard nosed and hard workers. This team is just going to get back to the drawing board like we always do.”
The Big Ten looks like the best conference in college basketball this season by a wide margin and Rutgers has a legitimate chance to finish in the top five. This team is really good, that much is clear. How good is yet to be determined and there is a long road ahead. Five of the next six opponents they face are ranked and nine overall in the 19 remaining conference games scheduled.
It’s why Pikiell said his team is focusing on what will make them better and not get caught up in the success they’ve had so far.
“It’s a 20 game gauntlet here called the Big Ten Conference. It just gets harder and harder and we just have to take it one game at a time. That’s what we talk about,” said Pikiell. “We talk about our defense. We talk about sharing the game. We talk about those type of things. Rankings really don’t do anything for you.”
He added “I’m pleased with our team. I think we are getting better. We’re getting into a huge slate of difficult games and experience helps you in these kind of things. Try and string together winning streaks. If we continue to play defense the way we did and we share the ball, good things happen.”
On the importance of living up to their own expectations, Baker said, “We wanted to make a statement. I told the guys before the game that we’ve never been 1-0 in the Big Ten. That’s something we wanted to do. We are always trying to make history. We are always trying to find something for the chip on our shoulder. We wanted to play like a top 25 team and we are going to continue to do that.”
Johnson said it was important to open Big Ten play by showing this team is better than last year’s breakout season, stating “We took that to heart. We broke the huddle ‘be 1-0.’ I think we had that mindset the whole game. Even went on their run, we got together and said we are going to be 1-0. That’s what we wanted to do and we did it.” He added, “I think winning on the road for our first Big Ten win (this season) is a huge statement. It shows that this team is different and has gotten better from last year.”
The unselfishness of this team has also stood out early on this season.
Baker talked about missing most of the first four games in these terms: “It was great, we were winning games. That’s all I really care about. I want to win games. As long as we are winning, I’m good. Everything was great out there.”
Harper Jr. backed up that sentiment, explaining “I want to be the best teammate, the best player, the best leader out there that I can be for my team. I just try and go into each game with a win. If that means having 27 points or having 5 points, I’m good either way. As long as we walk out with that win, I’m always going to have a smile on my face. At the end of the day, that’s what’s most important. Nobody on this team has personal agendas. Winning teams get stuff done.”
The two best players on the team happen to be the two biggest leaders. That’s not always the case and it’s obviously a huge benefit for Rutgers.
The veteran core of this team between Baker, Harper Jr., Johnson, Montez Mathis and Jacob Young, along with Mulcahy and Omoruyi make up about as good a seven man rotation as there is in college basketball this season. Of course, depth is a concern if injuries occur, but that’s the case for pretty much every team. Pikiell wasn’t joking on Friday’s media call when he said everyone wants to talk about the freshmen in regard to their performance in the Syracuse game, remarking “our veterans are pretty good.”
They are have become very good and have proven the high expectations coming into this season were warranted.
Baker didn’t shy away from them in the preseason and he reasserted those goals after the game. He said, “I came here for a national championship. I’m not really worried about rankings right now. We’re trying to go 1-0 every single game. We want to win a national championship. That’s out goal right now.”
A 5-0 start and making history as they go, this Rutgers team is different than so many that came before it. When they reach their destination at the end of the road for this season, they might find themselves high up on the mountaintop. If they do, their veterans will have gotten them there.