Life has a way of moving pretty fast, especially in this day and age of technology, social media and more television and streaming options than you can even count. It dawned on me this morning, during another rainy day on the way to work in New York City, that something that happened in the last game for Rutgers men’s basketball was more of a footnote than a focal point. I mentioned it in my game recap, as well as tweeted about it, but I suddenly felt guilty that I didn’t give it the attention it deserves.
The comeback win over Northwestern on Sunday clinched two major accomplishments for this program: a winning season for the first time in 14 years and eight regular season conference victories for the first time in 18 years. We are all hoping more is accomplished this season and are caught up in the NCAA Tournament projections, how many votes Rutgers got in the latest polls, the lack of road wins, as well as dissecting coaching decisions, player’s minutes and more. There is a very important game against Ohio State on Wednesday night, but before we get there, let’s take a moment to smell the roses that Rutgers basketball has produced this season.
Steve Pikiell has now accomplished two significant milestones that three head coaches of this program before him could not.
Fred Hill Jr. was the star assistant who would make a great coach and restore the program to a NCAA tourney level team. Instead, he went 47-77 in four seasons and was fired for a bizarre incident at a Rutgers baseball game.
Mike Rice was the fiery head coach on the rise who was going to lead Rutgers up the Big East ladder. Instead, he went 44-51 in three seasons and was fired in disgrace for abusive behavior that erupted into a national scandal once video of his practices were released.
Eddie Jordan was the legendary point guard of the only Final Four team in program history that was going to restore dignity and bring back winning basketball to the program. He certainly did the first and is owed respect in doing so, but unfortunately struggled mightily on the court with a 29-68 record. He was fired after three seasons.
I’d argue not only that there wasn’t a program in the country in worse shape at the time when Steve Pikiell was hired by Pat Hobbs in the spring of 2016, but that it was the biggest rebuilding job in over the last decade plus across college basketball.
This is not a knock on those fans that didn’t sit through the dark days of Rutgers basketball on the court during these past years, but for those of us that did, what is happening this season still feels a bit surreal.
What Steve Pikiell has done in his fourth season at a high major program is the goal for any coach hired to turn things around at this stage of his tenure. That Steve Pikiell has done it at Rutgers, where coaches careers went to die, is astonishing. Consider two of the last three Rutgers coaches didn’t even make it to year four. Pikiell has achieved so much in the toughest conference in the country with a roster that is 242nd out of 353 Division I teams experience wise, per KenPom.
Expectations have increased significantly throughout the season due to the team’s unexpected success. If you had Rutgers clinching a winning record with seven regular season games remaining, please email me with tonight's winning lottery numbers in Powerball.
The goal should always be to make the NCAA Tournament, but it’s been 29 years since Rutgers made it, so it’s fair to be thrilled that this team is not only in the conversation, but that they are firmly in the top half of the bracket as of today. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to break the almost three decade drought, but enjoying the current projections should be something worth appreciating too.
I understand fans getting frustrated with Rutgers falling behind 18 points at home to the Big Ten’s last place team. Fans second guessing coaching decisions is an art as old as when the first ball was tipped off by Dr. James Naismith himself.
With all that being said, I still remember the dreaded 50 point loss to Purdue at the RAC, the 60 point loss to Louisville in the AAC Tournament and plenty of other blowout losses under Jordan. The season opening loss to St. Peter’s in Rice’s third year. The nine game losing streak in Hill’s fourth year. Mostly, it all blurs together like one giant memory that haunts me occasionally.
Pikiell’s tenure has not been without low points, which is expected in any rebuilding job. However, there were tangible signs along the way that signaled things might finally be different with this coach. As fans, it was fair to still be skeptical after all the coaches who failed before him. Even for me, the losses can resonate more than the progress made sometimes.
True story, I woke up Sunday morning to a nightmare. My brain manifested the memory of Rutgers losing to Stony Brook two years ago. I saw Yeboah in a Seawolves uniform and a last second shot going through the rim. I immediately woke up in a panic. I tried to process that it was simply an old memory and not a bad omen for the game later that night against Northwestern.
That thought was greatly tested when Rutgers trailed by double digits most of the game against the Wildcats. And yet, I was weirdly calm in a way I’ve never been watching Rutgers basketball before this season. And then the crazy comeback happened and the significance of what long term goals had been accomplished got somewhat lost in the mix.
No matter what happens in the next month plus ahead of us, it’s important to appreciate the progress that’s been made. In today’s society, it’s always what’s next, wanting more and what have you done for me lately? At this stage of the season with a 17-7 record and 8-5 in Big Ten play, it would be absolutely fair to be upset and critical if this team implodes and fails to make the NCAA Tournament. But even if they do fall short, it doesn’t take away from the fact they’ve done two things of significance that Rutgers hasn’t accomplished in a very long time. We all want more and the signs on the road ahead point to more success in the future. Whether more of it comes as quick as this season remains to be seen.
Hopefully, more will be achieved and more firsts in Big Ten play will be reached. Just the fact that more is attainable as the calendar reaches mid-February is a seismic feat in and of itself. As the great Ferris Bueller once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Don’t forget to enjoy the journey that hopefully has us all dancing in March, but should already have you beaming with pride with what’s been accomplished this season. Steve Pikiell brought winning basketball back to the banks and I believe this is just the beginning.