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Rutgers basketball fans need to get off the mat

Adversity has arrived, but hope for the rest of this season should not be lost.

Penn State v Rutgers Photo by Benjamin Solomon /Getty Images

The Rutgers men’s basketball team took no. 9 Maryland down to the wire on the road on Tuesday night before falling 56-51. It was a one possession game in the final minute, but the inability to generate good scoring chances on the final three offensive trips ultimately cost the Scarlet Knights. It was an emotional loss for the team and the fan base.

March Madness may be the goal for college basketball teams, but February is when intestinal fortitude is truly challenged for all involved. Two disappointing, hard fought losses in a row has suddenly peeled off the band-aid for some Rutgers fans who are not done healing from past failures with this program. It’s hard to blame anyone for that. The fact that an NCAA Tournament berth is not only still in play, but in good shape, makes this a different type of situation.

One of my favorite movies is Cinderella Man, which is about the true story of New Jersey’s own Jim Braddock, who overcame significant odds to become boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world from 1935-1937. He was injured, had to work on the docks when his fighting career stalled before mounting an unlikely comeback. In the movie, before Braddock signed a deal to fight reigning champion Max Baer, who had killed a man in the ring in real life, the fight organizer had him watch footage of him action to eliminate liability issues. Braddock, portrayed by Russell Crowe, replied, “You think you’re telling me something? Like, what, boxing is dangerous, something like that?” To me, this is a good quote to apply to the current state of Rutgers basketball.

“You think you’re telling me something? Like, what, Rutgers isn’t good enough, something like that?”

Life as a Rutgers fan hasn’t really ever been easy in most sports and as bad as football has been in recent years, at least there was a very good decade not too far in the distant past. Getting back to that point seems possible once again with the return of Greg Schiano as head coach.

For the men’s basketball program, there hasn’t been much to cheer about in a very long time. However, Steve Pikiell has this team on the brink of doing something special this season. Even so, fans not expecting setbacks along the way are being unrealistic.

At 16-7 overall and 7-5 in Big Ten play, Rutgers fans are experiencing something for the first time either in many years or the first time ever. The college basketball season is a grind for all involved, but for Rutgers, there have rarely been real stakes at play for the better part of three decades. Now that they’ve suffered back to back losses away from the RAC and a daunting schedule remains, doubt is creeping in by some.

Every good college basketball team experiences a difficult stretch during the season. Ohio State was ranked as high as 5th in the national polls this season and then lost six of seven games, including a 1-5 stretch in Big Ten play. They’ve now won three straight. Maryland has lost back to back games on two separate occasions this season. Iowa has also lost back to back games once, including at Nebraska, which is a bad loss. Penn State lost three games in a row in January, but have won five straight since. All four teams are ranked 14th or better in KenPom and top 22 in the NET rankings.

Despite losing the last two games in painful fashion, Rutgers is 28th in the KenPom rankings and 29th in the NET rankings. They’ve struggled the past few games on both ends of the floor. They’ve gotten very little production from its top two scorers in Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker. They forgot how to defend the pick and roll against Michigan, while unable to extend a lead on the road against Maryland in the first half that probably cost them the win more than anything that happened the final two minutes of the game.

My favorite concern I’ve heard is that they almost blew home games to Nebraska and Purdue. They didn’t though and winning those in particular are in part why this team is different from the Rutgers teams of recent years.

Still, it’s fair to be concerned, nervous and even critical. Fans have that right and I’ve always preached that. However, it’s inevitable there will be a certain portion of fans who take it too far, make sweeping judgements of the team and coaching staff, all while bemoaning the negatives without highlighting the many positives that have occurred this season so far.

Embrace the adversity that’s come, because this team will be better off for it in the long run.

Rutgers has just 1 road win all season and frustration is starting to boil over. They’ve been either tied or within one possession against ranked teams in Illinois, Iowa and Maryland on the road over the past month. They faltered in the final minute of all three. The same thing happened against Michigan at the Garden on Saturday. Rather than take the sky is falling view, consider Rutgers won four Big Ten road games in the previous five seasons combined, with only one coming against a ranked team.

The argument that past failures shouldn’t be relevant to this team in particular is somewhat fair and somewhat not.

Where this program was when Steve Pikiell inherited it and where it is today is certainly important in relation to having perspective on this season. Understanding that these close losses are part of the development process in learning how to become a top 25 program in the long term is important as well. Bemoaning the missed opportunities of this season in these close losses is fair too. The more losses, close or not, that Rutgers suffers, the more in jeopardy their NCAA Tournament hopes will become. However, the past doesn’t shape the future in as much of predicting it as much as learning from it can.

Remember when Rutgers was just 6-3 and lost back to back road games by double digits against Pitt and Michigan State? They responded by soundly beating Wisconsin and Seton Hall, which changed the trajectory of the season. Why can’t that happen again?

The fact is eight games remain this regular season and plenty of opportunities lie ahead. Sunday is absolutely a must win against Northwestern, which would be a devastating loss if it occurred.

I will say this, I am not the least bit concerned that Rutgers will lose this game on Sunday, other than knowing anything can happen in college basketball. The confidence I have in this team is something I personally have never experienced in my 30+ years following them. Even as hard fought games have slipped away, it’s the continued fight and toughness that this team displays on a nightly basis that has inspired my faith in this group.

That’s not to say Rutgers isn’t a flawed team because they are. Offensively, they fall into bad stretches when they settle for low percentage contested shots. At times they have a tendency to stop moving without the basketball or stop passing it too. They miss close shots near the rim or don’t go strong enough in attacking the basket at times. But guess what? Every college basketball team struggles in certain areas at times too. Now Rutgers struggles more than others in some areas, but as of today, they are still an improved offensive basketball team from last season.

The missing ingredient from my point of view is that Rutgers lacks a true point guard who can create high percentage offensive scoring chances late in the game. I think Paul Mulcahy will ultimately be that missing link, but progress and development can take time. Also, with Geo Baker struggling, they’ve lacked that Alpha dog to take the big shot. I’ve said before the season Ron Harper Jr. needs to become just that and he still has a chance to do that.

They are currently 10th in offensive efficiency in Big Ten play and 99th overall. However, they are an elite defensive team, ranking 2nd in defensive efficiency in Big Ten action and 7th in the nation overall. This is still an above average team, something Rutgers fans haven’t witnessed in a very long time.

Rutgers has depth that has enabled them to win or remain competitive against the best teams in the conference despite obstacles like Geo Baker missing games or not playing at his usual level due to an injury, or Jacob Young missing last night due to a suspension, or even nights when it’s best big man Myles Johnson is stuck on the bench in foul trouble. That should create optimism, not doubt.

It doesn’t matter the issue, this team keeps fighting and coming for its opponent. Beating Rutgers requires teams to dig deep. They back down from no one. Rutgers tests other teams wills. This shouldn’t be discounted.

Call me overly optimistic, but I think next season we will be looking back at a junior core that has learned how to close out games against top opponents compared to a sophomore core that is losing close games against top opponents this season.

Rutgers fans have been through hell and back rooting for this team. Check that. No, rather Rutgers fans have been stuck in hell for a better part of three decades. There was no back and forth. It was mostly hell.

I, for one, believe in this Rutgers basketball team like I never have before. It’s fine if you don’t, but I hate to see people miss out on the good stuff this season has provided, rather than focus on the negatives or concerns. There are peaks and valleys through any good team’s season. Right now, Rutgers is in a tough spot. They have to fight their way back and win enough games down the stretch to remain in a good position to end a 29 year NCAA Tournament drought. Nothing I’ve seen in the past week leads to me think they won’t.

Steve Pikiell said after the loss to Michigan, “We’ll get off the mat. One thing this program’s done since I’ve been the coach is get off the mat.” Just as Jim Braddock did, the Cinderella Man, expect Rutgers to do the same. Only this time, they’ll be dancing on the mat instead.